The Gleaners and I (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Toward the end of Agnès Varda’s fascinating and compassionate documentary “The Gleaners and I,” we meet a man in the streets of Paris who visits outdoor markets to pick up thrown away food and eats them right there on the spot. He consumes about six to seven apples a day, is a vegetarian, and mindful of his health. Despite his lifestyle of sorting through the trash for food, he is not homeless; in fact, he is educated in Biology and possesses a Master’s degree. He makes a living selling street magazines, and he lives in a shelter that houses immigrants, many of whom are illiterate. So, he takes it upon himself to teach a class for his neighbors. They are taught how to read, write, and speak French—free of charge. This is only one of the many compelling persons in this entertaining and most educational film about second lives—of the people, including the director’s, and the objects they come into contact with.
To watch a Varda film is like being caressed with joyful surprises. In its opening minutes, the word “gleaner” is defined as “pickers,” “those who follow the harvest,” and for a while we go along with this definition as we visit all sorts of farms across France. In one farm, several tons of potatoes are discarded for being too small, too big, too misshapen, too hard—these, we are told, have no commercial value. And so the “odd” ones must be thrown away. I watched wide-eyed and jaw agape as mounds and mounds of potatoes sit on the ground, in the cold left to rot. Later, the poor—adults and children alike—come along to “pick” or “glean” these so-called trash so they and their families can have something to eat. It is not surprising that most of them eventually talk about sharing their harvests with their neighbors. These people are wired to think in a collective way. I wondered about the sorts of recipes they had back home. Sadly, Varda did not follow them for a taste.
The fearless and creative director takes her camera and swims with the potatoes, the grapes, the cabbages, the oysters, the people that society choose to ignore or forget about. She puts the camera so close to potatoes, for example, that we can appreciate the dirt sitting in between the grooves. By using the camera as a magnifying glass, she trains the audience to look at inanimate objects—food, refrigerators, televisions, clocks—from the perspective of what insights or stories these things can tell us. And so when the camera focuses on the people, we look at them through this lens, too. Clearly, Varda wishes for us to 1) understand and empathize with the poor and 2) to recognize our own privilege and acknowledge the waste we create. There is not a second where we feel lectured since her technique is so organic.
Eventually, a woman claims there is a difference between “gleaning” and “picking.” And so the movie evolves. We do not just look at fruits and vegetables. We look at kitchen appliances, electronics, and all sorts of knickknacks. We even get to meet people who take these broken, inedible things—scraps—and create art out of them. There is an older gentleman who loves dolls. His work is towering in a literal sense; his wife claims he is not “just” an artist. As curious as Varda is, at times she is wise in avoiding to ask, “What do you mean by that?” The reason is because there is beauty in the mystery; maybe it is more appropriate for us to provide answers instead of the subjects. In this way, we participate in what is being presented to us. I will not forget about the boot-donning man who has “a job, a salary, and social security number.” For more than ten years he has acquired his food from dumpsters. I loved that he gave us a non-answer (“a matter of ethics”) when asked why.
“Les gleaners et la glaneuse” shows that a hand-held digital camera can be employed and tell a thoroughly captivating story of pickers, psychoanalysts, teachers, lawyers, farmers. And even when Varda is just at home simply showing her hands and suspecting that “the end is near” due to the numerous brown spots on her skin, we watch spellbound because the person behind the camera is full of experience, wisdom, thoughts, and longings. She has a talent for placing whatever technology is in her hand so that we are inspired to look deeply and ask questions. And if there so happens to be no answer to our questions, we are motivated to extrapolate based on what we have seen, felt, imagined.