Times change, and the members of various “New Waves” are not so young anymore. Many rebels of yesteryear have become the conservative critics of today. Agnès Varda is not one of them. The most prominent woman filmmaker associated with the French “Nouvelle Vague,” she has been active since the 1950s, signing her name to both documentaries and fiction features. Although she is now over seventy, she has not lost any of her curiosity about the world or her enthusiasm for new filmmaking technologies.
In September 1999, delighted with the mini DV camera’s potential for intimacy and flexibility, she set off on a road trip around France. Her subject: modern-day gleaners, people who live from what others have discarded or left behind. In the 19th century, women gleaning in the fields was a favourite subject of realist painting. Varda begins her film by looking at the most famous of these canvases and talking to people who still gather the leftovers of the harvest: potatoes, apples, grapes, and more. But the film soon broadens its subject to include many other kinds of gatherers and recyclers who live off the spoils of post-industrial society.
Travelling around the country, Varda encounters a variety of scavengers, ranging from artists who incorporate found objects into their work, to homeless people looking for food in the garbage bins outside the supermarket. Among these “heroes of everyday life” Varda discovers many surprising acts of generosity. People share food, help each other, stick together. One extraordinary man, whom she finds eating parsley off the ground at a marketplace, teaches reading and writing to the illiterates at the homeless shelter where he lives. Originally trained as a biologist, he seems to prefer this unpaid, but more fulfilling, work.
By turning her focus on people living on the margins, who have rejected – or been rejected by – society, Varda gently raises some unfashionable but crucial questions. What is “success”? “Satisfaction”? How does our society of over-consumption depend on the existence of these people on the margins? What can they teach us about the value of what we throw away? Varda also takes an honest look at her own life. How much does she depend on material things for satisfaction? What “leftovers” will she leave behind? And finally, the question that has hovered in the background throughout Les glaneurs et la glaneuse: isn’t documentary-making a kind of scavenging, too?