The Gleaners and I is a documentary directed by the French new wave filmmaker, Agnès Varda. As the title alludes, its focus is gleaning, which in the traditional sense is the act of gathering leftovers after harvest in farmers’ fields. Varda’s film interviews and explores gleaners in rural France, and also recontextualises the idea of gleaning to an urban context. The film released originally in 2000, but was rescreened at Broadway Cinema on 11th July 2022. Alex Watkin reviews.
The film challenges a culture of overconsumption; it both highlights those who are forced to glean through poverty, but also those who choose to as an alternative way of life. Gleaning is not only portrayed as the collecting of leftover food, but general unwanted objects too. The film displays an openness and affinity to those filmed and interviewed; it questions what we might perceive as beautiful, and challenges us to reconsider consumerist narratives.
As is apparent, the film does not portray gleaning as a humiliating act; some of the individuals interviewed are unabashedly presented as taking pride in gleaning as a kind of countercultural activism. Varda herself takes part by finding a disregarded clock with no hands and installing it at home.
We become more attentive to the film’s cinematic language
However, the film too makes clear that gleaning is often a harsh reality forced onto people to eat and survive, due to the precarity of employment and insufficient government welfare. In so doing, the film finds a balance where it retains a sense of its own perspective, whilst being able to illustrate the multifaceted elements of its subject.
The film visually illustrates the tradition of gleaning through art historical representations, for example Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting, The Gleaners. This painting, in particular, is used to define what we might already consider gleaning to be in a narrow sense, which the film subsequently expands and recontextualises. The other consequence is that it relates the film to broader art historical narratives. To this extent, we become more attentive to the film’s cinematic language, and how it uses the unique qualities of the medium, compared to painting, to depict its subject.
We are shown a consumer-grade digital camera Varda personally uses to capture parts of the film
Fundamental to the film’s cinematic language is its use of digital camera technology, when the mainstream industry standard remained celluloid. Within the film itself, we are shown a consumer-grade digital camera Varda personally uses to capture parts of the film. It is a small handheld camera she is able to use with one hand, and allows her free hand to be used, for example, to glean.
The gleaners Varda is filming make use of castaway and neglected items, with an emphasis placed on this being an activity carried out by one’s own hands. So there is a natural connection made to the use of a handheld camera, but there is also the idea that Varda, through film, is able to find beauty in a part of society commonly neglected and ostracised, which is perhaps not dissimilar from what the gleaners are depicted as doing themselves.
Varda is able to explore both her subject matter and the capabilities of her medium
This method of filming helps Varda produce the film’s overwhelming sense of solidarity for its subject; we feel this solidarity for both the activists and those that glean out of necessity. It is a feeling pervasive through every element of the film, and is even suggested to some extent by the title. By relating gleaning and film, Varda produces a dialogue where gleaning commentates on the film, and the film commentates on gleaning. And as such, Varda is able to explore both her subject matter and the capabilities of her medium.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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