Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

(The Gleaners and I, France - 2000)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Agnes Varda
Screenplay: Agnes Varda
Cinematography: Agnes Varda, Didier Doussin, Stephane Krausz,
Didier Rouget, Pascal Sautelet
Composer: Agnes Bredel, Richard Klugman, Joanna Bruzdowicz,
Isabelle Olivier
Runtime: 82 minutes

"Gleaning, that's the old way. My mother'd say, 'Pick everything up so nothing gets wasted.' But sadly we no longer do…"

Perhaps the most important thing Agnes Varda does with this documentary is blow away the negative connotation its subject carries. The misconception is that gleaning is something done only by the people that have to, the poor and destitute. Its connotation is not that of collector, gatherer, or recycler, but that of garbage picker or scrap eater. Varda does show people that glean to survive, but more importantly there are several that do so by choice.

A man that gleans at the market mainly to save money shows that gleaners can be smart educated people. He has a Masters degree in biology and when Varda asks him if he often eats parsley, he responds, "Sometimes, yes. Parsley's full of vitamin C & E, beta carotene, zinc, magnesium. It's excellent." In fact, this guy is not only educated, but also an educator. He spends his nights teaching French for free, no strings attached, to whatever immigrants want to show up and learn.

We meet a man that lives almost 100% off trash who reveals two surprising facts - he has a salary and thus a means to do otherwise and he hasn't been sick in the 10+ years he's been living off discarded food. "Everybody, rich or poor, throws away food. Why? Because we are so stupid with food. If we're past the sell-by date of a yogurt, people go 'Oh my god, I can't eat this! It'll kill me!' So stupid. It's easy to tell from the smell of it if it's OK or not." I would add the look to that, and if it passes the first two tests the taste, but the point is there's nothing to be afraid of. I'm always surprised by how many people misinterpret the sell by date. There's no decree from the heavens that the product will be bad after this date; it's much closer to a guess on when the product will begin to lose optimum freshness or strength. A few Thursdays ago I had the misfortune of wasting 3 hours in the car and giving the New York Bankee$ ten bucks non refundable parking so they could skip Jeff Weaver's upcoming start against the New York Mets by "raining out" the game. This rain out being all the more ridiculous because it occurred less than 10 minutes after the game was supposed to start despite it being an afternoon game before their deadly 30 minute road trip to Shea Stadium the next day, and the rain being nothing more than a fine mist that disappeared long before we made it home and wound up going to the park to shoot hoop. Anyway, during this all too brief visit I was there drinking perfectly good best if used by 6/28/98 fruit punch drink boxes. I better find some other activity to bring the rest too because after this shadiness they really might go bad if I wait until I go back to utilize them.

The most surprising revelation may be that the youngest ** chef in France is a gleaner. He shows that wasting isn't cost effective, pointing out that using perfectly good spare parts to flavor other meals saves him $70 a day on herbs alone. But he also gets better stuff by going into the field and picking it himself. He knows exactly what he's getting rather than wasting money on some "ripe" stuff that's tossed in a refrigerator until someone decides its time for it to be shipped.

"The kitchen trash has made it into the art world, where junk is highly prized and priced," observes Varda. A running theme is comparing art to gleaning. Throughout the film we see classic works of art that depicted the old images, like a group of women picking up the vegetables that weren't harvest. However, we also see contemporary artists that make their art out of found objects. The artist Louis Pons says, "All these objects around here are my dictionary, useless things. People think it's a cluster of junk. I see it as a cluster of possibilities." We see walls of found objects, mainly dolls, surrounding the house of a brick mason and learn that Varda can find art in anything from mold to smashed TV screens.

The English translation The Gleaners and I doesn't really do Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse justice. It's partially a case of a fundamental difference between the inclusive French language and the exclusive English language. Literally, the title could be The Gleaners and the Female Gleaner, but I would suggest I Am One of the Gleaners would be closer to what Varda is going for. Varda gleans in the traditional sense of taking home chairs that were thrown out, but her film is about showing that everyone gleans in the broader definition, collecting little by little with patient effort. This definition includes gleaning for information, insight, examples, images, impressions, as well as any hobby where you hand collate a set.

It shouldn't take long to figure out that the reason for gleaning is of no importance. To glean or not to glean is not an issue of nobility or coolness; it's one of utility or usefulness. It's one that should be encouraged. What's important is that it helps someone while hurting no one (as long as the gleaner is respectful of their surroundings), and in many cases preserves the earth.

Although never attacked head on, quite clearly the enemy of the film is consumerism. It is designed to produce excess and waste by hoodwinking you into spending money on things you have no need if not no use for. The promise is the answer to all your problems, yet the same people making this promise are the ones that also told you all last year's products and fashions would do the trick, and the ones paying all the influential media outlets to portray the old stuff in as uncool a fashion as possible and the new stuff as totally hip so you'll succumb to their conformist pressure. Well, sometimes the promise is "merely" an "improvement", which I've decided means that they will gain your money and you might gain something you didn't really need that probably doesn't really help and usually comes with a certain amount of losses and/or problems.

A sometimes friend and sometimes enemy is the law. In the case of gleaning itself, it is a friend. Although hardly anyone has a clue of the specifics, even a Bush can't wholly deny their citizen the right to survive. Varda actually gets a lawyer out in the field to read and interpret the French law. For America, the USDA, which estimates 130 pounds per person - up to 1/5th of our food - ends up in landfills each year, has a nice resource online called A Citizens Guide To Food Recovery.

Where the law is the enemy is when it comes to things like certifying and ranking. Varda shows grapes lost to everyone because there is a limit on the amount of grapes a vintage wine field can yield per plot. Logic would dictate that the ranking would be based on how many were actually grown, but instead whatever they knock down and let dry up and rot doesn't count against their figure.

"When I see all this go to waste and that some people have nothing to eat, it's really disgraceful," says an unemployed man that joined Charity Meals to help people rather than do nothing with his time. Stupidity is the leading cause of waste. Varda talks with potato growers who estimate that 25 tons of their 4,500 ton harvest, and mind you this is just what they actually do pick, are rejected for not fitting the markets idea that every potato should be virtually identical. They have to be the right size, shape, firmness, and whatnot. One begins to wonder if these aren't the same people that are creating porn freaks. To me, the coolest looking potatoes are the heart-shaped ones, which I'd never seen before and probably will never see again. These and the other "rejects" should be donated to places that feed and/or distribute food to the needy, and how hard would that be when they already have them all in their dump truck, but instead they are just plopped in some field. Forget about public service, no announcement of any kind is made. Thus, the few people that are lucky enough to know when and where the potatoes are getting dumped get a feast, but the majority of the loot is spoiled before it's found.

"We're better off working in the field than shoplifting," says one poor gleaner. How true, but this goes against the growing supermarket mentality that is so fearful of anyone getting away with not paying full price that they'd rather just toss the food when it's "no longer fresh enough". I find it pretty sad that the only way to get day old bakery goods in most places is to know the baker, who by the way usually overloads his own family with these foods that "aren't good enough".

This issue brings to mind one thing that seems to hold pretty true, which is waste policy seeming to be passed down from generation to generation. The 2 star chef gleans because his parents did, I eat day old food because my grandfather worked in a bakery when my mother was small and my uncle worked in a bakery around us when I was small, and so on. The most wasteful people usually grow up getting "only the best", which includes things like a steady diet of the ever healthy fast food. They are the ones that let you know that there's a big difference between the brands of jeans, though they curiously have to look at the tag or ask you before they tell how how cool or uncool you are. I think at this point it's very hard not to waste though because we are so deeply immersed in a culture of it. Everything is disposable so you have to keep buying it, and in most cases even the so called repair men are people that charge you $50 labor so they can hook your item up to a computer and find out which board they can toss out and charge you $100 to replace. Plus most of the current eyesores are made so cheaply that they just give way or fall apart. I remember when my grandfather took the insides out of our old wooden TV and made it into a cabinet, which now holds about 300 of my tapes and serves as a stand for our crappy plastic TV. This fairly new plastic TV already gets intermittent interference because it's become essentially incapable of holding the tuner in the right place, a problem that according to the repair man can't be fixed (he seemed dumbfounded after he tried replacing the tuner itself).

I was very impressed by the Trash is Beautiful place where kids get to play with bits of discarded junk. I'd like to see someone guide them through actually collecting this stuff because it was a bit too clean and easy to expect them to find their own toys instead of bugging their parents for the latest merchandise the kids movies are peddling, but at least it begins to show them that most objects can have some entertainment value if you use your imagination. I remember getting all kinds of looks and comments from my friends when I'd rescue some old game from spring cleaning, but of course if I thought it was good they were the first in line to play. This year instead of anyone gleaning anything we got rid of (granted it has to be pretty bad for us to put it out), someone deposited their broken dryer. Anyway, the guy in charge of Trash is Beautiful does things like transform yogurt cups into flowers. I'll have to show this to my mom because she would do everything she could think of with those things from starting tomato plants to using them for outdoor cups.

I haven't been a big proponent of digital video cameras, but this type of film is the perfect use for it. It doesn't need to have a pristine image, what it needs is the intimacy of a non-obstructive tool. Not only does the small bit of equipment allow this type of film with no guaranteed audience to be made because the cost is so much less, but better footage can be attained because it can always be on hand and isn't distancing the interviewees to near the extent that a bunch of people with big heavy equipment does. Images can now truly be gleaned.

Varda is known as the grandmother of the new wave because of the members that started directing before the movement like Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, she was the only female member (actually I believe she was the only female member, period). She is probably the director that stayed the closest to the goal of the Novelle Vague, which was basically to get out in the streets and make films for the people. Whether fiction or non-fiction, her focus isn't on getting from point a to point b to point c, but on studying the character(s) and what makes them tick. These characters tend to be pigeonholed and/or marginalized in some way whether they are the Vagabond, the manufactured singer in Cleo from 5 to 7, the husband that feels closer to his wife and kids after he's entered into an adulterous relationship in Le Bonheur, or the gleaners. And none of them really complain. They accept their condition; it's others who refuse to accept what they are and/or what they'd like to be.

I suspect the primary reason this film has been received so well despite being one of those "unmarketable" essay films is that it's so light hearted, non-pretentious, and "most importantly" positive. Normally I'd probably criticize the film for not showing sorrow and suffering, but gleaning is about people getting things they will use, things that will in some way help them and sometimes others as well, which regardless of circumstances is always a good thing. Also, Varda just has such a love for humanity that radiates throughout the film. It probably goes too far in one instance, where she calls the homeless people that vandalize a store after they bleach their garbage her protagonists, as if justifying their juvenile reaction by the fact that the store began a selfish stingy practice to avoid having their dumpster overturned.

Getting back to acceptance though, the film is also about Varda dealing with getting old. She was born in 1928 and saw her husband, director Jacques Demy who was born 3 years later, die in 1990. She might not like everything she sees, but she isn't afraid to show how age is affecting her body and mind. She suggests that art is always a self portrait, which begs the question why don't more filmmakers make an honest one?

At one point Varda makes light of her forgetfulness by including footage of her walking around with a camera attached to her that she forgot to turn off. Probably no other director would let this "dance of the lens cap" see the light of day, but that's precisely the point. Even though it's at her own expense, Varda has found use for this footage that would otherwise be wasted. That the film doesn't further develop its knowledge and discoveries or build any momentum because Varda simply jumps around to anything she filmed during her journeys may be the reason the film falls just shy of being a masterpiece. However, she does a strong job of linking and transitioning (both smoothly and more often abruptly), and not knowing what she's going to stick in or what someone might come out with actually makes it a freer cinema. As Varda's characters Cleo and Mona Bergeron drifted around living on the fly, she can now be seen filmmaking on the fly. At this point, Varda is primarily gleaning to remember. Luckily, one thing she hasn't forgotten is what makes interesting worthwhile cinema.




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