The Gleaners and I (2000)

“I have two hands. One has a camera — the other one is acting, in a way. I love the idea that with these handheld cameras — these new numeric things — very light, but, on the other hand, very “macrophoto.” You know what is macro? You can approach things very near. I can, with one hand, film the other one. I like the idea that one hand would be always gleaning, the other one always filming. I like very much the idea of the hands. The hands are the tool of the gleaners, you know. Hands are the tool of the painter, the artist.”

‘The Gleaners and I’, directed by Agnes Varda in 2000, is a French documentary about the right of citizens to ‘glean’ food left over from the harvest. It’s a movie that moves from the fields and vineyards of rural France to the streets and skips of the city as Varda examines the different motivations for scavenging food, furniture and electrical appliances, the historical context for gleaning, and the history of the act as depicted in art. Much like ‘Robinson in Ruins’, this film focuses on the liminal areas of the country and on the political and social issues that are faced by people who are marginalised or disenfranchised, but unlike Patrick Keiller’s remote and stylistically controlled essays, ‘The Gleaners and I’ shows a direct interaction between director and subject. Also unlike Keiller, Varda’s documentary is full of people and is preoccupied with their individual lives. The results of Varda’s tour of France are interesting. She meets homeless people forced to glean to live, she meets an artist who use the scavenged objects, particularly abandoned dolls, in strange totem poles. Finally she meets an educated man who, for ethical reasons, has dropped out to live off fruit and vegetables left in the market and who, in the evenings, teaches immigrants to read and write. In many ways it is the flipside of Varda’s ‘Vagabond’, another study of the hardships and surprising joys found in the poor areas of the country but this time not dramatized and distanced, but real and close-up. As she makes the documentary, we watch Varda slowly drawn into this life of salvage and gleaning, collecting objects for her own house. Ultimately we realise that this is what Varda is, as, indeed, is any documentarian of the stories of individuals: Varda is a gleaner of stories and of personalities, and her films become a scavenged harvest of French lives

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an intimate and deceptively small documentary that, on close inspection, reveals more and more about the nature of living on the edge of things. Watch in a double bill either with ‘Vagabond’ for a dramatized version, or with the must-see ‘Robinson in Ruins’ for another documentary about borderland politics.

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