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The Complete Films of Agnès Varda

The Heart of Documentary

The Heart of Documentary

It’s the other famous shot in The Gleaners and I (2000) of Agnès Varda’s reaching hands. Not the one she said was taught around the world as the heart of her documentary-making, where, in a playful, perspicacious game of perspective, she appears to “catch,” in a ring made of her thumb and finger, articulated trucks seen through her windshield as she drives on a freeway. That one is a subtle, funny critique of the net of international corporations these trucks represent, in which the local agricultures and communities that she is documenting have been caught. Nor is it the widely cited shot, full of open, melancholy tenderness, in which she films “one hand with the other hand,” meditating on aging, gender, and time. The shot that really catches at the heart is the one that cues the other two: it is the first time we see the filmmaker reach from behind the camera into the frame, as Varda extends her hand to grab a heart-shaped potato from the heap of misshapen, outsize, damaged discards returned to the ploughed field by a farm­workers’ cooperative, and now being gleaned for food. “The heart,” she says. “I want the heart.”

Reaching avidly for the core matter(s) that others disdain—whether potatoes or the poetic, pregnancy or political radicalism—Varda shaped her oeuvre through what she describes in Gleaners as “la même geste modeste de glâner”—“the same modest gesture of gleaning.” The rhyme of geste and modeste, like the puns Varda adores, is itself a modest gesture, reaching for and treasuring the play of everyday language. In Gleaners, with her digital camera in one hand and a potato in the other, Varda illuminated her lifelong practice of radical compassion through vernacular filmmaking in a way that captured international attention and led to a late-life burst of feature-documentary-making that split its attention, like blood circulating through the valves of a heart, between Varda herself and the communities, both intimate and public, into and between which she traveled.

This shot marks the moment that Varda the filmmaker becomes Varda the gleaner—that she announces her entry into fellow feeling, compassion in its most literal sense. It is reaching for the heart-shaped potatoes—their shape echoing the colorful celluloid cutouts she used to tint shots of a joyous family meeting in the earlier Uncle Yanco (1968)—that shifts the film from a humanitarian documentary looking in from outside to an ethnography of shared practice. In gleaning for aesthetic pleasure and creative generativity, Varda shows that those gleaning out of necessity are also feeding parts other than their bellies: specifically, their hearts. As she will note in her cinematic lecture Varda by Agnès (2019), “I’ve learned that recycling brings joy. We feel things aren’t lost . . . We give them new life. It’s not wasted.” Varda catches instances of camaraderie and collective pleasure at the potato mound, such as the unemployed food-bank volunteers gleaning for themselves and for others, and the preteen boys singing about their daily diet of potatoes, showing off freely for the camera that, in gleaning, they “have the potato,” as the French expression goes—that they’re up for it, full of beans, alive in the moment and to its possibilities.

Reaching for the potato—not only crossing from behind the camera to in front of it but also announcing her desire—Varda undertakes what the American poet Joan Retallack calls “the poethical wager,” a risk- or chance-based poetics that is also an ethics, because it puts the artist’s body on the line and in the frame. Varda frequently named chance (hasard) as, in a sense, her codirector, but she also talks, in Varda by Agnès, about the need to have a point of view, especially for making documentary, and a plan or organizing principle (dispositif).

Drawing on another one of Varda’s beloved objets de hasard, we could pair these practices—point of view and plan—as a frame. In Gleaners, Varda is as conscious of the ornate (or not) frames given to paintings of gleaners as she is of how the paintings themselves frame gleaning (as a specifically feminine, rural activity). In the opening minutes of The Beaches of Agnès (2008), she sets up both mirrors and empty frames on a beach, tilting them to catch both the sea and the faces of her assistants. Faces Places (2017) similarly thinks about how faces and places frame each other, both literally and in the sense of mutual interpretation and representation. One of the projects Varda undertakes with the photographer and street artist JR, her collaborator on that film, is to post a giant version of a family photograph of a loving couple, given to the filmmakers by the couple’s great-granddaughter, on the side of a building. Varda goes to a flea market to find a locketlike oval frame to complement both the historicity and the intimacy of the image. Before the recycled frame is applied to the picture, we see it framing Varda’s own face. This is the poethical wager at work: Varda reaches for the heart by showing us what the personal stakes for her are in doing so, that she is a person who is “in a way like everybody.”

“The heart of her films always lies in the same place: in the truthfulness, the authenticity, of the people who appear within them.”

“Frank sexuality is as much part of the radical poethics of Varda’s work as her observations of bodies being bodies in public space.”

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