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Agnes Varda enters a Venice Beach café sans entourage or publicist, profusely apologizing for being late. At 72 years old, the French director is energetic and sharp, observant. Often considered the godmother of the French New Wave (her early short films predate Breathless by several years), Varda has made movies that range from 1962’s effervescent Cleo From 5 to 7 to her current feature, The Gleaners and I, a documentary on art, mortality and modern-day scavengers. Like all her films, it’s taut with social consciousness; the politics are made potent by her use of humor, by compassion that never curdles into didacticism. Between Cleo and Gleaners there are documentaries on the Black Panthers and Varda’s late husband, Jacques Demy (director of Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), as well as her own influential films, including Le Bonheur (Happiness), Du Côte de la Côte and Vagabond, her best-known film in the United States.
A former art student, Varda was a photojournalist before she was a director, having only seen five films by the time she started making her own. Her work freely crosses genre lines, drawing from fiction and documentary in order to reveal their truths. The night before this interview, she attended a special screening of Gleaners, then charmed the audience during the Q&A session that followed. (The documentary opens in Los Angeles on April 6.) This morning, Varda, dressed in loose, comfortable clothing and wearing chic sunglasses, comes across as reflective and offhandedly funny, punctuating her thoughts on alternative cinema, social inequity and her late husband with warmly incisive comments on birds and passers-by. She starts talking before she’s even sat down.
AGNES VARDA: I received a lot of awards for this film, but the one that I love so much is from the Montreal Film Festival. There were all these beautiful films like In the Mood for Love and Yi Yi — good, strong films — and here I am, not in competition because I’m not looking for that, and the audience award was given to The Gleaners. The director of the festival said that has never happened, that a documentary got an audience award above a fictional film that people love so much. You saw yesterday — there was laughter, then silence, you could feel that the people were touched. [She spots some birds close by, pecking crumbs on a tabletop.] Look at those birds! Look at those birds! They are not afraid, eh? They are such California birds. Anyway, there must be something in the film that is getting at the hearts of people.
L.A. WEEKLY: Well, in the film the audience is allowed to identify with these people whose lives have been discounted.
Plus being poor. Some people are aside because of their choices, because of their way of living — but they’re also at the top. Can we switch seats? [We do.] Thank you. And then you look fantastic because you have a better light. This is the best light for you. See, I am always the filmmaker. It is true that people connect with the film a hundred times more than I expected. I always try to do that in all my films. It’s about sharing emotion, sharing a little knowledge. Like . . . You saw Vagabond, maybe?
Well, in Vagabond there was that side thing in there about the trees being sick, which I investigated before I put it in the script. I always try to put in something that people can think about outside of the main story. But it was never so strongly, immediately accessible to all kinds of people. What we really wish is to do something that, even though it’s so French, can be shared with anyone around the world. It’s a whim, let’s be serious, what this film does [at the box office], even in France. What the film does in six months is what a blockbuster does in one week. Let’s be clear — it’s a very marginal hit. It’s out of the mainstream of business, advertising and such. So, it makes me feel that I was successful and I maybe show that there is room for alternative cinema.
One of my favorite moments inThe Gleaners is when you’re eating the figs and say that many of those who have so much simply don’t want to be nice.
It’s true. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I quoted the Bible [Leviticus and Deuteronomy], to show how we are supposed to help those who have less. I’m not a believer in anything, but I quoted that to show how old those beliefs are — they’re older than the Bible, actually. We should think of people who have less than what we have. But people don’t want to be nice, they don’t want to think of others, they don’t want to share or be good. It’s so simple if they decide to be good.
I was surprised last night during the Q&A session when you said that you didn’t really own any of the posters or other art from your early films.
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