Agnès Varda’s 2000 essay film The Gleaners and I follows the legendary Left Bank filmmaker’s investigation into the history of gleaning, of the lives of those who stoop, who pick up what’s left behind, who scour the fields (or markets, or back alley trash cans) for needlessly wasted food (or objects) after the harvesters (or grocers, or restaurateurs) have taken what they’ve deemed worthy or saleable. Grains, fruit and vegetables from the fields, meat and fish from the refuse in urban spaces. Potatoes too large, too small, too oddly shaped, apples less than conventionally photogenic. Meat or dairy products tossed out on their “best before” dates that just a simple, good, critical sniff will tell you are still perfectly edible. (Varda is invited into homes to see these foods rescued from rot and prepared for eating, thus certain sequences of the film play out like some marvelous hobo cooking show.) Stoves and refrigerators left in the street are resurrected, if not for their intended use than for the purpose of storage or art. In paintings, such as Millet’s 1857 Des glaneuses, which features prominently in the film, gleaners were depicted as working in groups. Yet, while she finds gleaning couples and gypsy caravans in her search (which takes her to several regions of rural France, as well as the streets of Paris), many of Varda’s modern-day gleaners seem to be solitary, perhaps because the practice has become less and less socially acceptable, and in some cases a punishable offense.
More than a decade after its celebrated premiere, The Gleaners and I endures in part because it remains the definitive cinematic document on its field of study, but also because of the potency and allure of its highly personal, idiosyncratic approach, which stresses the filmmaker’s identification with her subjects. The film is dependent on what Varda encounters in her search, and what she’s able to produce with whatever she’s found, which is to say that Varda also gleans, but with a camera, specifically what was then the latest, most lightweight consumer camcorder, which she utilizes brilliantly. In Varda’s capable hands, hand-held contributes to the handmade, artisanal quality of The Gleaners and I. Hand-held also prompts a literal study of Varda’s hands, which reveal her age (she was in her early 70s at the time) in a manner that her curiosity, energy and tirelessly playful attitude do not. The so-called “grandmother of the French New Wave” is a mother of invention. Filmmaking is generally an art of deletion, or reduction, and The Gleaners and I is indeed well edited and fleetly paced, yet Varda nonetheless seems always ready to forge something valuable from what would conventionally seem discardable. (Anyone who’s seen the film will remember the wonderful “dance of the lens cap.”) She likes it when animals block the country roads, because she invites surprise. “A clock without hands is my kind of thing,” she says at one point in her running narration. (The soundtrack also features jazz and Francophone hip-hop.) Thus this homage to the marginalized and their resourcefulness reaches the heights that it does because the author of the film herself, while hardly marginal, represents the epitome of creative resourcefulness.
It could be one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this sprawling landfill (the world’s largest) that lies outside Rio de Janeiro, a place where refuse coats the earth so that earth itself remains unseen (as though refuse is earth, is soil and sediment). Refuse forms the substance of everyday life for Jardim Gramacho’s inhabitants, a population comprised of scavenger birds and human beings, workers sifting through the refuse for items to be resold or reused, from recyclable raw materials to clothes to food. These workers are the definition of marginal, surviving off of what the rest of us discard. Waste Land penetrates the world of Gramacho through the very special lens provided by Vik Muniz, whose series of mammoth portraits of Gramacho workers, crafted in collaboration with his subjects out of the very garbage they work in, constitutes the Brazilian-American artist’s most ambitious and visionary project to date.
The film, co-credited to João Jardim, Karen Harley and Lucy Walker (who recently helmed Countdown to Zero, a chilling documentary about nuclear weapons), is partly about Muniz, his life and methods. As much as is the case with any visual artist, Muniz’s work is tremendously tactile, his insistence on the alignment of materials and subject matter makes an immeasurable impression on you when you share the same physical space. The experience of seeing the work in two dimensions fails to do it justice. Yet the film’s unique access to Muniz’s process enriches our response to the work in a unique manner, whether or not we’re able to see it in the flesh. I only wish this process wasn’t conveyed at times through stiff, seemingly scripted exchanges, not to mention the occasional activist platitude (and I wish it didn’t have to be accompanied, which is to say overwhelmed, by Moby’s music). Waste Land is in any case more emphatically about Gramacho, about its diverse people, whose dignity and perseverance in a lifestyle cloaked in shame is intensely moving, and whose individual stories are of the utmost social relevance. So whatever reservations I have about shouldn’t be mistaken for discouragement from watching its truly extraordinary narrative unfold.
This piece was written in response to Metro Cinema's inspired Reel Waste series, which runs from May 8th thru the 11th.