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.

“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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