POV: Talk about The Beaches of Agnès.
Agnès Varda: I would call The Beaches of Agnès an autobiographical documentary, even though it’s about more than just me. It shows the people who have surrounded me, who have helped me exist, who have inspired me, who love me and whom I love. There’s a Gertrude Stein book called Everybody’s Autobiography. That’s the kind of feeling I wanted to convey in the film.
The film is simple. I didn’t want to make it complicated or sophisticated. I didn’t want to show all my troubles. Instead, it’s about what happened between me and the people who have been in my life. I especially wanted to show my love for Jacques Demy. He passed away 20 years ago, and I wanted to make clear, and make present, his absence. Missing Jacques Demy, I think, casts a sweet melancholy tone over the film. I’m not a weeping widow — I’m very active and happy, and I enjoy my children and grandchildren. But I still feel his absence, especially here in the house, because it’s where we lived. But this is not a tragedy. The people you love don’t disappear, even when they’ve passed away.
POV: What is your approach to filmmaking?
Varda: As a photographer, I learned about looking at things, using lenses and choosing a point-of-view. Later, when I decided to become a filmmaker, I used all of those things. You have to feel, you have to look precisely, you have to make choices; then, you have to know a minimum of technique to execute what you want to do.
I’ve worked with a range of equipment when filming. I worked with 16-millimeter film and 35-millimeter film. Then I worked with video cameras that recorded on cassettes, and then cards, and now I also work with recorders that record HD. Around 2000, there began to be cameras that I could use myself. Now I mix images made by a director of photography with images that I shoot myself.
I like to combine a handmade piece of film with a professionally made image. And these images all fit, because I am the person who is putting them together. In many American films, there are clear-cut categories of work: The producer does this, the screenwriter this, the director this and the editor this. I love the idea that my films are handmade, and I do a little bit of everything. There are producers, but I work with them. When there are business discussions, I am part of those discussions. I like to write, I like to shoot and I do the editing day after day with the editors. While I don’t always know how to work with Avid, or the editing systems, I do think that choices have to be made every day, and I like making those choices. I believe in what is called cinema d’auteur, and I think you should get the feeling, when you’re watching a film, that it was shaped by the vision of one person. I prefer a film that gives you the feeling that there’s somebody behind the film, holding the film together and inventing something.
POV: This film in particular relies on chance and spontaneity. Can you talk about the role that chance plays in your filmmaking?
Varda: A film should be like a living thing or an organism that finds its own way. And sometimes during the process of making this film I was surprised. For example, I went to Belgium to visit my childhood home for the film. I thought that I would be very moved, and I was moved by the sight of the garden outside the house. Then I went inside, into the room where my sisters and I grew up together, and the two people who lived there were very excited to show me their collection of miniature trains. At that point, my documentary filmmaker side took over, and I got excited to film them and hear them talk about the trains. When I left the house, I said to myself, “Okay, in terms of memories of my childhood home, this footage is no good. But footage of me saying, ‘Ah, my curtains were here; my bed was in this corner,’ wouldn’t be funny to people watching the film, and this will be.”
As cinema, that chance meeting with those miniature train collectors was so much better than my memories. I was always able to adapt and take advantage of what was happening — to take advantage of chance. I always say that chance is my first assistant, because I’m always ready to see whatever comes along, ready to change my point-of-view in order to take advantage of what’s happening.
POV: What made you want to be an artist and a filmmaker?
Varda: Surrealism was a huge inspiration during my adolescence. I read André Breton, I saw the works of Man Ray, Breton, Salvador Dalí and other artists. I remember Dalí coming to a conference at the Sorbonne university in Paris in an open car full of heads of cauliflower!
The surrealists were a little crazy, but they thought about things. They thought that the world was too orderly, and that some disorder would reveal a lot of truth. Surrealism woke me up, really. My parents were nice people who raised us properly, but we never looked at the world around us, and that way of life wasn’t enough for me. So during my adolescence, I read and looked at surrealist paintings and realized that there was another world. Artists give us energy and imagination, and so I wanted to be an artist very early on.
POV: Part of the film is about your experiences in Cuba with Fidel Castro. Can you tell us more about that encounter?
Varda: I went to Cuba in 1962. I was asked to go as a photographer to provide the French audience with images of the country. At that time, Cubans wanted to show others their revolution and their way of doing things. I was impressed by Cuba — there was an incredible energy, an incredible sense of hope. The culture was very vibrant — there was so much music, dance, cinema and theater. In Cuba in 1962, artists were totally free to express themselves, including through abstract art, which had nothing to do with the revolution. I admired the energy there, and the desire to change things and make them vibrant and beautiful.
In 1961 and 1962, Fidel Castro was a beloved leader to the people of Cuba. In Europe and around the world, people had their eyes turned to Cuba, thinking that perhaps its revolution would turn out to be a revolution that worked. I met with Castro in Cuba, as I show in The Beaches of Agnès, and it was incredibly interesting.
I requested a meeting with Castro, and then I waited for a long time. Eventually, I met with him for a half-hour at night, and he spoke about fishing and diving. He was clearly busy, but in a good mood, and he looked peaceful. I made him sit in front of two rocks in the photographs, and the rocks looked like wings — I could see the energy and the hope in him. The question was whether the revolution would fly. I think in the end, Castro had wings of stone. I guess revolutions are difficult everywhere.
POV: How has The Beaches of Agnès been received around the world?
Varda: The film has been incredibly well received. This is true not only in France, but in other countries as well. Yesterday I was in Belgium, and a woman came up to me and said, “I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve been so touched by the film — it stays with me.” And the young people! I can’t believe that young people in their early twenties come up to me and tell me that they love the film. It makes me feel good. There are so many films around: beautiful films and masterpieces, films with incredibly good production values and special effects. But I think that sometimes people need, in a film, to have a peaceful encounter and a dialogue with someone else. My life was sometimes difficult, very active. There has been some pain, as there is in everyone’s life, and some death, as there is in everyone’s life, but the film has a kind of quiet energy, and viewers sense that very clearly.
I just came from the Netherlands, where they were showing all of my films and Jacques Demy’s films. I have also been to northern Brazil, where there were 500 people at a screening to see one of my films! I couldn’t believe it! There are people who love cinema, and who want to see auteur films, real films, all over the world. To be known, and appreciated, for the kind of work I do is wonderful.
American universities have also consistently shown my films, and I’m very glad about that. I’m not a money maker, and my films have never made my distributors rich in the States, but they know my work there, not only in museums like the Museum of Modern Art, but in other places, too. I was at Harvard for a retrospective of my films, and the screening rooms were full every day. So it felt good to see that the films I made still mean something, that they are part of an active cinema in which films are not just products.
I am grateful to the people who organize those retrospectives, because that’s the way films remain alive. I’m not alone as a filmmaker; there are many filmmakers of “my type” who try to use cinema as a language. So we filmmakers are luck that there are people out there who appreciate these films. I don’t care if my films don’t make money, but I do want to share my films with others. I enjoy being a filmmaker and working as much as I can.