The Gleaners and I: Documentary and Cinema Verite

The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda is a social documentary exposes the lifestyle of “gleaning.” It is amazing how different the many backgrounds and forces are that drive each subject in the documentary to glean. Forced to glean to eat, or chose to glean to find artful scraps, or because they support the ethics of it, each gleaner was very different.  But they all had striking similarities, too.  The one aspect that brought each of them together, which I was very surprised to see, was how nearly all of them were happy.  Many of them were extremely selfless and giving to their neighbors or immigrants. They also allowed Varda to glean the scraps with them at the same time they allowed her to glean information from them.  Another similarity between the gleaners, and it also connected the farmers and shop owners, was that no one really knew what the laws or rules stated about the legality of gleaning.  It was amusing to hear how each person had a different opinion that I assume had been passed down by word-of-mouth from their family history of gleaning.

Cinema Verite is school of documentary that forces the subjects of the documentary to acknowledge the reality of the camera that is recording the events. In a documentary film that has its purpose in recreating the real, I find this to be essential in grounding the film in reality. In The Gleaners and I, Varda makes constant reference to her ability to film one hand with the other using a digital camera, for example through irising with her hand the passing trucks on the highway shown below. By repeatedly forcing the viewer to acknowledge that you are watching a film, and forcing the subjects in the film to acknowledge the camera, it seems like a true recreation of how these scavengers really are.  They aren’t trying to fool the camera because they are welcoming it.  To me this technique is a truer picture of reality than the early documentaries, or actualities, like Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.  In that case, none of the workers look at the camera as they leave, despite its obvious physical presence, which is the opposite of a natural reaction to seeing a camera one afternoon outside the place you work.

 

Agnes Varda and truth in filmmaking

When watching Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, I was struck by how prominent and integral a role Varda herself played in the narrative, as if drawing attention to the fact that she is the lens through which we are experiencing the lives of Gleaners. In this article by Violet Lucca, Varda discusses her approach to documentary filmmaking. Varda emphasizes how important it is to be aware of context when consuming film or photography – two media that are often erroneously interpreted to represent the truth. One of her projects, which presented a series of photographs interpreted and analyzed by anonymous speakers before revealing the creator and interpreter of each work, observes how viewers react to and appreciate works that they know nothing about. In doing so, Varda seeks to explore what we consider to be truth.

Though many may think so, a photograph is surely not truth. Rather, Varda claims, it is an interpretation of reality – interpreted at once by the photographer and by the viewer, each finding resonance to their own lives in different aspects of an image. In this manner, perhaps the subject of a photograph is not truth, but the Artist’s interpretation is. In The Gleaners and I, Varda finds poetry in how each different kind of gleaner (herself included) resonate with one another. That profound resonance that she herself feels is a truth – or at least it is intended to be such. She has interpreted the world in a certain way – finding beauty and rhymes where perhaps none exist, and the truth she presents is this perspective on her subjects.

Likewise, in this interview, Varda notes how in some of her works, like her film Kung-Fu Master!, she placed pauses between scenes, to force viewers to reflect and project themselves onto the events depicted – to interpret and find something real that resonates with them. Each person will see something different.

I find this question of interpretation very compelling. Is art, like Varda’s, most honest when it is most self aware? When it faces its own biases and perspectives and seeks to share a thought, almost as a personal essay rather than an expository one? Or is truth best grasped when filmmakers attempt (but inevitably fail) to remain truly objective in their depiction of their subject matter? And for us viewers, what truth do we want to consume? The most human truths or explicit, factual, concrete truths?

Gleaning In the United States

I enjoy watching documentaries in my free time and I usually don’t discriminate on the type of documentary I am watching. I will watch everything from historical war documentaries to ones about cute little animals. I try to learn a little something from each documentary while trying to enjoy the topic. With that being said, I did not enjoy watching The Gleaners and I (2000) by Agnes Varda. However, I did use the viewing as an opportunity to think on the subject of gleaning which I knew very little about before watching this. The biggest question I had was how relevant was this documentary to people here in the US? Is gleaning in terms of picking left over and rejected crops a practice here like it is in Europe? My uncle owns and has worked on a farm his entire life but until this week I had never even heard of gleaning. This led me to believe that maybe it is not a common practice here in the US. However, I decided to investigate and quickly came to the realization that gleaning is a fairly established process here in the US but maybe not as much as it should be. The first article  I came across was from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was essentially a how to guide for gleaning. It provided statistics about how an estimated 100 billion pounds of food or 20% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste. It then provides instructions on how to coordinate with donors or farmers and the benefits of providing gleaned food such as tax breaks for farmers and protection for them from legal action if food provided appeared to be in good health but later caused health problems. However, the thing that struck me about this how to guide was that it was not directed at the poor that we see portrayed the most in The Gleaners and I, but instead it was directed more towards volunteers looking to help the poor. In fact, most of the articles I found online have to do with volunteers and organizations helping the poor through gleaning. Two articles, one by NBC and one by NPR , focus mostly on the organizations which provide gleaned food to the poor. Both articles discuss the Society of St. Andrew’s, which is the largest gleaning organization in the US and provides up to 30 million pounds of gleaned food to the poor each year. However, this is far from the estimated 100 billion pounds of food that goes to waste. People volunteer for these organizations for a variety of reasons as these articles discuss. Some choose to do so for the sake of helping the poor, others enjoy gleaning, and some do it for the tax breaks. While the mainstream media focuses on the good Samaritan efforts of volunteers and organizations, I am sure there are sources which discuss the gleaning efforts more from the point of view of the poor in the US like we see in The Gleaners and I. The thing that sticks with me the most from all of these articles is how much food goes to waste each year and how little people are actually informed about the benefits of gleaning. Perhaps if more farmers and people were made aware of gleaning as well as given incentives like tax breaks, maybe gleaning would be a more recognized practice in the US and the 30 million pounds of food gleaned a year by the Society of St. Andrew’s would appear to be a small percentage of gleaning efforts and not the largest in the US. If you are curious and find any more interesting articles about gleaning in the United States feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the subject.

Reading Bataille Alongside The Gleaners and I

Georges Bataille is a 20th century French intellectual who is most well known for his collection of writings titled The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, which regard alternative forms of economic systems. Bataille draws heavily upon the concept of the “potlatch” common amongst some North American indigenous groups. A potlatch was a  ceremony where individuals would redistribute their property and gifts to the point of excess. This form of economic system contrasts with temporary closed-systems of capitalism, as it focused upon the principle of excess as opposed to scarcity. In the traditional capitalist economic system, the emphasis is placed upon scarcity where each item is accounted for and there exists a calculable closed-economic system as a result within strictly defined parameters.

Philosopher Allan Stoekl wrote Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability in 2007, which is now considered a definitive work towards applying Bataille’s ideas to issues prominent in modern society. In this book, Stoekl dedicates a section of Chapter 5, titled “Orgiastic Recycling”, to Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Stoekl views Varda’s documentary as an example of the possibility for a postsustainable economy – one in which sustainability is achieved as an after-effect and not as simply a manageable idea within the traditional capitalist modes of thought and meaning. The concept of gleaning breaks from the closed form of economics as the gleaned object “is not just matter to be stored, sliced and diced, used up, wasted, thrown out; it is, as Bataille would say, an intimate world, one that cannot be mastered, rendered neutral and useful in some task” (Stoekl, 2007). The gleaned object is not the means towards some end, but is an end in and of itself. The following excerpt sums up Stoekl’s view of Varda’s conceptualization of gleaning and the future of sustainability:

“If there is to be a postsustainable world, it will open itself as the after- effect of gleaning: of the charged object, the charged body, the collision of past and future in and through death. It is a realm where there is a convergence of responsible recycling, defiant ritual, the sacrificial destruction of use and meaning, and social commitment beyond the narrow desires of the self. Community is an aftereffect of such postsustainable generosity. Recycling, as in Varda’s film, will entail not just a practical reuse of a salvaged standing reserve (reused material: plastic, steel, paper, etc.) but, more profoundly, a kind of erotic reinvestment and disinvestment, in which the object takes on a meaning that defeats our demand that it be a simple tool, a simple means to the end of status, individuality, comfort… The tossed object will be consumed in an intimate world. “Bits” will be everywhere, the traces of the lost world of seemingly infinite standing reserves; they will be reused and they will command their reuse, talking to us, signifying our own loss and our own glory in reusing them to live, to play, to do nothing.” (Stoekl, 2007)

I think that Varda’s film provides an intriguing example of how objects can have meaning outside of the traditional forms of consumerism that we are surrounded by on a daily basis. It’s a refreshing take on progressive theory due to its intimacy with approaching these concepts, as opposed to a “progressive” blockbuster that ultimately still profits tremendously off of its agenda and is entrenched within the contemporary industry and economy.  I’ve attached a link to the PDF of Stoekl’s book below. If you’d like to read the excerpt specifically regarding The Gleaners and I, it’s from page 145 – 149. The rest of Chapter 5 preceding this section works through Bataille’s thinking towards an application of sustainability and draws influence from Heidegger’s work as well.

Bataille, Georges_ Bataille, Georges_ Stoekl, Allan – Bataille’s peak _ energy, religion, and postsustainability (2007, Univ Of Minnesota Press)

Effective Gleaning in America

In this NPR article, “Gleaning A Harvest For The Needy By Fighting Waste,” Linda Tozer talks about how billions  of pounds of perfectly good, with perhaps minor physical deformations, get left on farms either because of machine-error or because of said physical deformities. With such waste, it is wonder how, as a society, we still have people going hungry and dying from starvation. However, Linda Tozer says that even though there are communities of people who work together, a big issue arises in that no one is “lined up to take the vegetables.”

This poses an interesting question: do nonprofits benefit from taking this supply of food that is readily offered? Why would they ignore something that seems so helpful? Is there something more complex that the average person doesn’t know about that would make the difference?

Linda Tozer’s community, Society of St. Andrew, gathered 18 million pounds of food in the year prior to this article, and yet still so much went and continues to go untouched.

 

 

Redeeming the Scraps: The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I is as charming as she is.  She takes a very different approach to capturing the subject than I have typically seen in documentary works, not even attempting to be a fly on the wall, but instead relishing in the opportunity to enter into communion with these peoples and make them aware of the camera.   At numerous points throughout the film we hear her voice, as she asks questions of the gleaners of all kinds she meets.   It seems that she realizes that there is almost no way to entirely remove the subjects knowledge of the camera without lying to them or being dishonest in some similar way, so she lays everything out on the table in front of them and the audience, allowing the work to be truthful to what it is, a film.   She even makes reference several times to how much she enjoys the act of filming and shows the audience the hand held camera she is using to capture much of the film.

As she displays her camera to the audience, she also makes herself seen in numerous parts of the film.  This in part shows her knowledge of the nature of documentary as a person choosing to film a group of things and assemble it in a way which they feel depicts it properly.  Due to this, any documentary is by nature partially untruthful to the real nature of its subject, as its creation is reliant on the subjective interests of the team filming and assembling it.  Instead of attempting to circumvent this truth, she simply points it out in the film by filming her hands, and pointing out how flawed she is, and making her fears and opinions about the subject known.  She reveals her subjectivity so the audience knows how to remove it themselves piece by piece from the film where it exists.

Her style of documentary is fascinating, for as she reveals these facts to the audience, she also reveals them to her subjects, and yet they seem to open up and show her honesty as people typically don’t in front of a camera.  It may be that this only works with her chosen subject, as she is revealing her nature as a gleaner of her own objects, and thus she is like them.  She gleans her souvenirs from various countries such as Japan of course, but she also gleans images and stories.  She comments throughout the film how much she loves filming, and how fascinated she is with the art of capturing people and nature in an image or a moving image.  Maybe these gleaners she talks to see that, and see her as part of their community, an artist, “tidying up ones inner and outer worlds,” picking up the pieces that are left behind as we live our lives.

“The Gleaners and I”: A Depiction of Art and Life

The Gleaners and I (2000) follows Agnes Varda as she comes across scavengers and reflects on what it means to be a “gleaner”. It’s a very personal and diverse concoction of people sharing their stories and why they do what they do. We get perspectives from farmers, prominent individuals, professionals of law, young people, and impoverished people all spelling out for us the scavenger lifestyle and how it connects with the rest of society. The Gleaners and I (2000) is mainly organized developmentally as Varda segues from the poor people of France gleaning crops to law professionals explaining legislation to artists talking about their unique style to even herself collecting souvenirs.

Varda takes a somewhat explorative position as she travels through France interacting with gleaners of all kinds and learning about their lifestyles. As she discovers these people and listens to what they say, she discovers what it means to be a gleaner beyond just scavenging for food or supplies. She learns that gleaning is a human reflex of people searching for things that they need. The impoverished glean because they need food. Artists glean to recycle objects into their art and satisfy creative desires. People glean because of what they believe about waste. People glean because they need fun. People glean because they need to save money. As Varda deals with old age, she gleans for comfort and shelter from the fear of time running out. As a filmmaker, Varda gleans images to create something collective from things that exist separate from each other.

Because of this, Varda also takes a reflexive position, showing that the very act of making this documentary about gleaning requires gleaning. In the film, there is a short segment talking about Marey, a pioneer in chronophotography. In this early capturing of images in a sequence, Marey gleaned motionless images in such a way to collectively show motion as art, science, and spectacle. Now over 100 years later, Varda is gleaning images using a handheld camera not only to form motion through still images but to form an idea from the many different stories of people in their wildly different lives.

Largely, The Gleaners and I (2000) portrays art as a form of gleaning. It starts with a painting and ends with a painting, and shows many alternative forms of art in between. Her documentary not only serves to inform or enlighten but also acts as art and is structured like an art piece. It’s a stream of consciousness flowing from idea to idea like paint strokes to make a bigger picture:  that gleaning is an expression of need and want and an important part of art. On an even larger scale, gleaning is an important part of life for all people in infinitely different ways.

 

What do you think is the point that Varda is trying to make with The Gleaners and I (2000)? Do you think Agnes Varda was trying to make a statement about waste from a persuasive position? Do you think gleaning is an important part of art?

Power Dynamics in The Gleaners and I

I found The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000) to be a pleasant documentary that actually taught me a lot about gleaning itself and those who partake in it. It also showed a glimpse of the filmmaker Agnes Varda, and made me eager to learn more about her (she seems like such a nice person). It was a modern-day explorative documentary, since the film was exploring the French countryside and encountering a new world of people who glean. However, it also seemed to be slightly reflexive; by filming herself and her house, and even discussing the exciting new handheld camera she would be working with, Varda calls attention to the film-making process and the filmmaker (after all, the title itself calls attention to the filmmaker by saying “I”). In a self-reflexive way, the process of gleaning and picking through leftovers is like Varda’s process of making a documentary film (she picks through leftover shots, even the ones where a lens cap is present or it’s just her hand closing around trucks, to make the film).

One of the things I enjoyed about the film was the lack of a power dynamic between Varda and the gleaners. Varda seems to put herself on the same level of the gleaners; she gleans alongside them, shows her aging hands and gray hair, and gives us a glimpse of her moldy ceiling. Again, she even seems to identify with them by hinting that documentary film-making is like gleaning. She doesn’t present herself as superior. She also presents many different sides of the gleaners- poor gypsies, thrifty families, chefs, oyster gleaners, rural gleaners, urban gleaners, artists- to show that they don’t all fall into one category with the same motivations that we can stereotype as viewers. Varda even mirrors how different they all are by showing a variety of animal shots in the middle of the film; just as all the animals she has encounters are different, so are the gleaners. Some are humble (like the single mother gathering potatoes), similar to the paintings of people stooping over, while others are prideful (like the man who wears rubber boots) similar to the painting of the gleaning woman standing straight up. However, all of the people shown have certain values in common, which shows that Varda does seem to have an opinion of an ideal gleaner – they are noble, thrifty, and a bit stubborn. They feel as if gleaning is their right. And Varda supports them. It is also interesting that she combines gleaners/gleaning with images of love: heart shaped potatoes, couples talking about how they met or how long they had been together, an urban gleaner teaching immigrants in his free time, singing families, etc. She seems to exalt humanity in this way.

However, she also presents her opinion of those who are against gleaning, and there does seem to be a slight power dynamic here – she voices her disapproval of them, shows high regulations against and distrust of the gleaners by farmers, and even shows a religious painting of those suffering before going to hell right before she talks about the town of Burgundy, where gleaning is forbidden. It’s almost as if she is saying that she and the gleaners are morally superior to the farmers who discard food that they cannot profit off of.

Do you think that Varda has a clear opinion on gleaners and those who are against gleaning? Are there power dynamics at play between her and the gleaners? Is she exalting humanity?

One last thing: This was a great dog.

The Cultural Influence of Documentaries

Since this week’s topic revolved around documentaries I think it’s important to discuss how certain documentaries have helped share the modern society and culture today. Documentaries help to disseminate information that would otherwise have been inaccessible or too dense and complex. They break down and present factual information and events in ways that are easy to process, understand and relate. Due to this ability they have proven to be one of the more ideal formats for addressing controversial and occasionally disturbing aspects of our society.

Take for example Eva Duvernay’s most recent documentary The 13th which as the book describes it falls under the category of a social documentary utilizing persuasive positions to relay it’s point. The 13th is a documentary that seeks to draw attention on the issue of mass incarceration of African Americans in today’s society. It follows a linear pattern that flows from it’s origin to it’s present day effects.

 

Another example of a critically acclaimed social documentary is Food Inc, created by Robert Kenner in 2009. Food Inc examines the big corporations that control the dietary habits of most Americans’s and was responsible for shedding light on highly controversial practices endorsed by these companies regarding the treatment of livestock. Food Inc sparked a cultural movement bring vegan and vegetarian practices into a much more mainstream spotlight. As a result it can be considered a part of America’s cultural history.

The power of documentaries to affect change does lead me to think about how we validate documentaries. By their very nature documentaries are designed to be taken as a factual and accurate representation of the world they present. However this has often been exploited for more malicious purposes and to sway the thinking of people to an idea that may not always be the most ideal or ethical.