Gleaning, the act of collecting leftover crops and other materials after a harvest, doesn’t necessarily sound like the most interesting subject for a documentary, but director Agnes Varda is able to make the topic political, personal, and highly compelling in her film The Gleaners and I (2000). The legendary leading female director of the French New Wave mediates on age, social class and artistic creation in her film that wants us to change the way we think about gleaning. The Gleaners and I examines the evolution of gleaning as a women-only activity of gathering after the harvest to a pastime and life-source that all in the modern world can participate in. In Varda’s eyes, gleaning is as broad as collecting something gradually or extracting anything from different sources. The film exhibits gleaning as a normalcy that takes place in everyday lives and de-stigmatizes those who have come to depend on gleaning as a food source. It makes gleaning a kind of nationalistic tradition, deeply entrenched in the French identity. The film draws attention to the socioeconomic inequalities in France by showing the dependency some groups have on gleaning to eat while there is still plenty of food to go around.
Varda juxtaposes images of people gleaning fields and trees for food, artists combing junkyards for inspiration, and urban dwellers gleaning closed up marketplaces for leftover scraps. At one moment in the film, Varda is holding a bundle of wheat, but then amusingly drops it to pick up a camera and says, “There’s another gleaner in this film, it’s me.” She brings herself into the film to show how pervasive and diverse the act of gleaning is.
The Gleaners and I also draws a connection between gleaning and the act of creating art. Varda meets a number of artists who incorporate old, recycled materials into their works. The film constantly puts forth the idea that looking at something in a slightly different way, putting it in a new place, or incorporating it into other things changes the value of the object. When Varda’s friend finds a clock with no hands in a dumpster dive, he dismisses it as “nonfunctional,” but Varda is able to find beauty in it and makes the clock her mantle centerpiece.
The use of camera, pans and tilts, shifts in focus, zoom-in/out reflects Varda’s political message. When she contemplates the more intellectual, abstract uses of gleaning, we are shown images of flowers that are overexposed and so zoomed in that if you saw the image without context you might not know what you are looking at. These images are combined with Varda’s voiceover: “On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity.” Even though she is filming real, physical objects, Varda’s zooms and exposure make her images appear more abstract, which reflects the conceptual aspect of gleaning. Her camera technique emphasizes her conjecture that simply looking at and absorbing the world around you is a kind of gleaning, which puts her on equal footing with other kinds of gleaners.
Often Varda will use tilts but especially pans to mimic the human eye’s natural tendency to scan a field of objects and take in what visually stands out, which is another act of gleaning, because it is a form of collecting gradually. While in the field filming a gleaner combing through potatoes, Varda’s camera tilts and pans to show the pile of potatoes and illustrates the immensity of the sorting job. By panning and tilting on different collections of gleaned objects such as potatoes, artwork, souvenirs, and roadsides, Varda equates them all with each other and takes hierarchy out of the act of gleaning.
When Varda enters the mise-en-scene or is heard through voice-over it purposefully communicates her socio-political ideas. In one scene, Varda is shown eating figs from a tree and talking about some croppers’ decision to forbid gleaning. She says, “I half-feel like interfering, but it’s none of my business, it’s their fruit… They won’t allow gleaning because they don’t feel like being nice.” She then questions a crop worker and asks him whether gleaning is allowed, and he says no even though the fruit is still perfectly good for people to eat. In these scenes, Varda is clearly showing her political stance that gleaning should be permitted. Her position is bolstered by both her aural and physical presence on screen, which she limits throughout the film.
Varda is also present in the documentary to relate her filming practices back to the act of gleaning and to universalize the activity. Her subject who gleans potatoes finds an odd heart shaped potato that he is ready to discard, but Varda quickly comes into the frame and asks to take the potato for herself. We see her using the camera and then watch the footage she films on it. At the same time, Varda narrates what she is doing and why and describes how she, “immediately filmed them up close and set about with one hand perilously filming my other hand gleaning heart shaped potatoes.” She brings a sack of potatoes home with her, examines them and films them once again. The activity shows how Varda is able to glean material and immaterial things from her filming experience; she has both the potatoes and memories to bring home with her. Through this endeavor of taking objects and reevaluating them under the lens of the camera, Varda makes the argument that artistic vision constantly relies on appropriating objects and presenting them in new, original ways.
Varda’s political and social mediations on age are especially apparent when she films herself. She was 72 when the movie came out but seems as energized and inspired as anyone, especially as she has this new, exciting hand-held digital technology to work with. In an early scene, Varda combs back her thinning hair, which feels like a random moment, but it is followed up by her examining her hands and saying, “my hands keep telling me that the end is near.” Through voiceover, Varda transitions the focus back to gleaning in the fields, but it has now been established that she will consistently bring herself into the film in order to show that what she has done throughout her life-- making films and sharing stories-- has been an act of gleaning.