Worse than paradise - The Gleaners and I at Bertha Dochouse
Monday 4 January 2016, by
Between 1999 and the year 2000, Agnès Varda took a digital camera around France filming gleaners – “glaner,” Varda’s voiceover says over shots of the encyclopaedia entry, “to gather after the harvest.” The original gleaners, made famous in rustic paintings of the 19th century, gathered left-over corn; in Varda’s film we meet the specialist gatherers of unwanted potatoes, grapes, furniture, fridges, parsley, dolls and oysters. In other hands they may have been categorised as scavengers or dumpster-divers – but the term gleaner has a magic to it, rightfully placing Varda’s marginalised interviewees in a noble tradition.
As the film unfolds, gleaners from all over France charm us, make us laugh, teach us and encourage us think. This is Varda’s gift. “I put a lot of energy to make them look good, express clearly things, including the pain, the hassle, the difficulty to live, to eat,“ she said in an interview in Indiewire in 2001. Life is hard, but Varda finds true delight everywhere, and not of a glib, inspirational variety. She has a fun streak a mile wide. She interviews a lawyer in his robes in the middle of a field, asking him whether the law which enshrines gleaning as a right for those in need also covers those who glean for pleasure. “If they glean for fun, it’s because they have a need of fun,” he answers. In another scene, Varda films the mould on her ceiling by way of greeting it after a trip away. She’s come to like it, she says – why not appreciate it the way one would a tapestry in a museum? “You can always make something look different. Which is a way of saying that I’m, in a way, protected from being unhappy,” Varda said of the mould scene.
Beauty and humour are so prized by Varda that occasionally the film appears to veer off-topic, but these interludes also serve their purpose in a film that is wide-ranging and profound but short at 78 minutes and as light and quick as the digital camera it’s filmed on. A couple sit outside a bar telling us their funny and lopsided love story, in between explaining the difference between gleaning (stooping to pick up) and picking that which descends. So Varda gleans a good story, and makes us care about the lives of people we might not have thought we were interested in. She is curious, compassionate and non-judgmental, and uses her own charm not only to be invited into the lives of the people she interviews but in front of the camera, too, clownishly confronting her greying hair and liver-spotted hands in scenes which turn out to be their own profound meditation on ageing.
Moving from a story about the complexities of waste in agriculture (where some farmers welcome gleaners as part of the ecological system, and others ward them off in protection of their profits), the film goes on to consider the use of ‘cute, clean’ rubbish in children’s workshops and high art, and the compulsion of some gleaners to collect and create. “I like dolls, they’re my system,” says the Russian bricklayer, Bodan Litnanski, who has created a palace of totem poles out of things found at the dump. “He’s an amateur,” says his wife, “we can’t stop him. We let him.” One artist shows Varda a map, which he says is provided by the council to show people when and where they can collect other people’s junk. “I think they’re actually printed to show where to dump things” Varda gently interjects. The Gleaners and I is radical in its turning of waste on its head. Gleaners become lords of the town, the generous sharers of fantastical bounty. Varda doesn’t tell us that this is how things should be, or if not, what things should be like, but lets us make something out of the stories she collects.