The Gleaners and I (2000)

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The documentary is undeniably one of the most popular forms of filmmaking, because there is something about the truthful conveyance of real events that attract audiences, as evident by the popularity in true-crime documentaries, and stories of amazing human feats of strength or endurance. We are drawn to these stories because it feels like we are a part of them – we almost feel like we are climbing Everest with these people, or taking part in the Olympics or helping solve a mystery. I am not an expert on psychocinematic analysis, but there is just something about non-fiction filmmaking that appeals massively to us, and I can confess that I am an enormous lover of the documentary form. I adore discovering new and innovative forms of documentary, and usually the ones that appeal to me the most are those that are so unique in execution or subject. One such film is the classic documentary The Gleaners and I, which shook me with its brilliance.

When it comes to making documentaries, there are few names as fascinating to me as that of Agnès Varda. With a career spanning over sixty years, Varda has made a name for herself as a figure of cinematic resilience and innovation. As one of the remaining remnants of the French New Wave, Varda is one of the most interesting filmmakers to come out of that era. She is an icon of cinematic feminism – she has made films that put her beliefs and thoughts at the centre, and the fact that she managed to rise to this level of acclaim, being seen as one of the true maestros of world cinema, is a shockingly amazing achievement. The Gleaners and I (original title: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) is one of Varda’s crowning achievements – and upon watching it, you’ll realize why this is one of the most extraordinary documentaries one will ever experience.

The Gleaners and I, as you can tell from the title, is about gleaning. Gleaning is the age-old process whereby individuals scavenge fields for discarded or forgotten produce after a harvest has taken place. Varda, inspired by a painting, decides to make a film about these people, observing their way of life and their various reasons for partaking in this activity – as the film shows, for some it is merely the concept, for others it is a way of survival. I can assure you that The Gleaners and I is far more than just a film simply about “trash-pickers”, and it is actually a far more complex and emotionally resonant film with a story that will leave you in absolute shock in how beautifully poignant it is. Varda has always shown to be an expert on bringing out realistic emotion in her films, and The Gleaners and I is quite an experience when it comes to showing the lives of real people.

There are various types of gleaners in this film, and Varda makes sure she is very thourough in presenting the different gleaners from around France – she visits various regions and speaks to a panoply of different people, each one with their own reasons. Some of them are doing it as it is their only way of survival, others are doing it for the principle of just being able to get for free what others spend money needlessly on. There is even a divide between the types of gleaners, as there are rural gleaners, who look for food, and there are urban gleaners, such as an artist who takes his family’s tradition of gleaning into the world of art and constructs pieces of art using only trash. There are people in the cities with jobs and salaries that even glean for the sake of it. This film never dwells on one subject or location for too long, therefore we get brief but enlightening encounters with several people, giving their testimonies on their habits, creating a wide-ranging view of the culture of gleaning in France. Whereas many other films would just focus on one strata, The Gleaners and I rather looks at the bigger picture.

Yet, this film isn’t only about the literal gleaners. As the French title says, there is another figure in this film that does another kind of gleaning – la glaneuse, or “the female gleaner”, referring to Varda herself. One aspect of Varda’s documentary filmmaking is the manner in which she puts herself at the centre. This isn’t to imply any form of selfishness, but rather a way in which Varda makes her films increasingly personal. The Gleaners and I is as much about the gleaners that Varda interviews as it is about Varda herself – through this film, she discovers that she herself is a gleaner, a very different kind of gleaner – she takes fragments of society, sometimes discarded or invisible to other filmmakers, and makes them into something new and useful. Very rarely is there an entire film made about people who live off scraps, where they are not only presented in a positive light, but also in a way where they are shown to be happy. Varda herself is a filmmaker who takes her inspirations from all around her and make them her own. This is a highly emotional and devastatingly honest portrayal of Varda through the eyes of her camera lens, and for that, The Gleaners and I is an instant masterpiece. Anytime someone creates something both artistically resonant and incredibly personal, it enters into a new level of brilliance.

The Gleaners and I is a social film, and it makes some scathing statements (not attacks, however) on society. To be perfectly honest, even I was a bit taken aback before watching this film regarding the concept of people who pick scraps for a living. However, watching this film did somehow change my perspective. Unfortunately, our culture has reviled those that rummage through bins for a living as being sub-human of sorts, and it doesn’t help that television networks like National Geographic Channel and TLC have made entire TV shows where individuals are showcased digging through bins, in a way that the viewers at home judge them. The idea of “dumpster-diving” has become so revolting in our society – and while I personally don’t know if I would partake in the activity, I do seem the importance of just not judging people too harshly on their activities – of course, there are those that do it for fun or for attention, but for others, they have no other choice. A great documentary is one that changes hearts and minds, and The Gleaners and I is certainly one of them.

The Gleaners and I is an innovative piece of cinema. Varda, who is pretty much the only female member of the French New Wave movement, clearly is a genius of filmmaking. The Gleaners and I is a prime example – this is unlike any documentary you will ever see. It was filmed mostly with a small hand-held camcorder, which gives a very personal feeling to this film. It feels intimate without being amateur, and through the introspective dialogue and cinematic conventions that highlight both the subjects and the director herself, The Gleaners and I is a marvel of modern documentary filmmaking. It is not elaborate or expensive, and rather gets down to the truth of the story. In a world where we are constantly trying to move towards more extravagent expressions of cinema, something minimalistic and simple like The Gleaners and I is an absolutely welcome change of pace.

I adored The Gleaners and I. It is an essential documentary film for everyone to see – it is funny, heartwarming and fascinating.  Agnès Varda is an absolute genius, and she has made a film that defies the expectations one would have based on the story, and she creates something so lovely and personal. It will leave you feeling joyful, but also pensive on one’s own beliefs and how we view society. I think this is a film everyone needs to watch, and at only 82 minutes, it is a very easy film to watch. It is truly incredible and I think Varda should continue to be heralded as the phenomenal and iconic filmmaker she is. An absolute masterpiece.

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