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 1962s 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, its 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 Vardas 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 shes 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 Im 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 theyre 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. Its 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 its so French, can be shared with anyone around the world. Its a whim, lets 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. Lets be clear its a very marginal hit. Its 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 in The Gleaners is when youre eating the figs and say that many of those who have so much simply dont want to be nice.
Its true. Thats what its all about. Thats why I quoted the Bible [Leviticus and Deuteronomy], to show how we are supposed to help those who have less. Im not a believer in anything, but I quoted that to show how old those beliefs are theyre older than the Bible, actually. We should think of people who have less than what we have. But people dont want to be nice, they dont want to think of others, they dont want to share or be good. Its so simple if they decide to be good.
I was surprised last night during the Q&A session when you said that you didnt really own any of the posters or other art from your early films.
Because the producers, you know, didnt always consider the directors as being part of the film. And we were not asking. This is our fault. Im quite sure that if Id asked, Give me five posters of Cleo, please give me Le Bonheur, please give me . . . [She pauses.] Whats the name of the picture you put in the hallway?
Yes, Please give me those . . . Im sure they would have given them to me. We never thought of getting them. So we ended up trying to make an archive of our own things. Jacques and me started to pay for them. I think it would be okay to have our old things, you know, but Im not a collector. We never thought of this. We were just like birds, hopping from one tree to another and doing films.
Just doing the work.
Yes. And thank God when you are young, you dont think about archives and keeping things like you are somebody important. Its a part of modesty. I still am modest, but I think it makes sense to keep some sort of record of what has happened. You didnt stay after the questions and answers last night?
No, I had to leave.
Because you should have stayed. I bought some beer and some cakes, and we invited people [in the audience] to come and have a drink. We try to, you know, make the conversation be nice. [She points just ahead of our table.] Look at the shadows of the umbrellas on the wall. It has the texture of painting, no? The deepness.
I wanted to ask you about paintings and the role that painters have played in shaping your art.
Aww, you really did your homework, huh?
I tried. While your love of painting is one of the key elements in Gleaners, youve actually made explicit references to paintings throughout your career. At the beginning of Jacquot, a painting fills the screen and sets the tone for the film. In Vagabond, Mona steals a small work of art and is upset when its destroyed. And the look of Happiness is . . .
Impressionistic. Yes. And then I made another film, which you may not have seen, called Jane B. par Agnes V., and in that one there are almost copies of scenes from my favorite painters, Goya and such. Well, Im very much into painting, but I never painted. [A truck idles behind us.] Oh, whats that noise?
I think its a garbage truck.
Oh, well, if its garbage its sacred. [Laughs.] You know, I loved one of the movies lines, its been quoted in some articles, that a lot of people have never shaken hands with the man who picks up their garbage. This is true. They wouldnt even know his face. Its like, whatever is related to leftovers, to garbage, should be pushed away, forgotten. But people live out of that. They need it. They start where you finish. I give to those people the right to speak.
Thats a recurring theme in your films stripping away the myths that we project onto people or that they pull onto themselves, then underscoring their humanity.
Well, I tell you. Just when you say the word humanity, I could run for half an hour. You make it too much. Make it more modest. Everybody has something unique and sometimes beautiful. It takes a little time to see it. Thats why the last example in the film is striking the one of the man who eats off the ground. When you see him teaching, he is illuminated. He loves to teach, you see the relationship he has with his students. They smile at him, they make jokes. These people have nothing, they dont speak French, they live in a disgusting shelter, but they can laugh like kids when they make the joke about the cockroach. Thats the real beauty, I would say. Its not so much about humanity but about the beauty, the ability to shine somehow. Just by explaining something, telling a joke, being good.
We try to illuminate the Fourth World the world of ghosts, the forgotten, the poor but not the classic poor, not the official poor. Its the poor nobody speaks of. They dont go to the Red Cross, most of them. They just pick things up that people have thrown away. And theyre also very much lucid about society. When they speak about it, theyre very aware of the waste and they think its disgusting. But theyre not even mad. Theyre not angry guys.
How did you decide to use rap music in the film?
Near the beginning of the film, from afar you see people in the market who are looking for food. The filming of that was heartbreaking, it was sad. And reality is sad. But I thought, instead of being only sad, why dont we contest it? Thats what rap does it contests society. And I thought that bringing in rap, instead of making the scene pathetic, would make the scene something we should discuss by contesting it. I didnt want a [known] group. I took a girl from one group and a boy from another group and gave them some words in English it would be Bending is not humiliating, or something like that. In French it sounds better. I gave them three or five sentences like that, and then they go and improvise. They say, We are poets, we have to use our own language, and I said, Fine as long as you dont change those key lines. So, that first woman, she rapped quite well, I think. The second rap, it says [that] when you feel lonely, your wife or your girl I dont know how youd say it . . . your chick has let you down, its good to be able to pick [as in glean] and refuel. The third rap was supposed to be about picking up furniture in the street, and I also gave three key lines. The girl was paid for the session and she didnt show up. They are difficult, the rap people. I dont know about here in America, but in France they are spoiled kids. So I did the rap. I did it in three takes. You are laughing, but its true.
How did shooting in digital affect the way you worked?
It really made it easy to approach people I could not have approached with a crew behind me. I learned to use it as a kind of passion diary. I would have never asked my D.P. to film my hair or my hands. But by doing it myself, I felt it was natural. It was a cinematic act and not a showoff. Its not pity about myself and Oh my God, Im aging, how awful. No. As a filmmaker, how can you translate what is happening in a cinematic way? Somebody in the audience asked me, Why did you do that to yourself? Wasnt it cruel to show your hands? I said, Cmon, Im not asking for a magical cream to erase the spots. I never wore gloves. I love to touch people. I love to feel the ground. I dont care if Im aging. What can you do with your life? Create the cinematic act. Jacques I loved my life with him. My memory of Jacques being alive and enjoying that I was making a film of his childhood, the whole thing was painful because I had to finish the film when he was gone. But I could say it was a cinematic mourning act. Can I say that? Does it make sense?
I could be weeping and wearing black veils. And I did cry, I did mourn. My family was broken. It was painful. Ten years after and I still feel the pain. But Im not just a widow. Im a filmmaker. So, the widow business became my business to be a witness of what one can do with ferocity of pain. Ive made very few films. I am really an artistic filmmaker. Artist means the way I use the word is a little bit passé but artist means that your life is dedicated to finding shapes, structure, colors, lines, something that can be shared with others. Thats why the structure of the film is important. I did very serious editing on Gleaners. I worked a lot on the editing. I want people to follow the digressions very easily. I had the freedom to do that.
Last night, you said that as youve gotten older, you have more freedom. What freedom do you have now that you didnt have before?
Well, I tell you. Ive learned through so much, including Jacques being gone. What I do now is being free to go where I feel something and I need to do it. And if they dont like it, fine. Freedom is to say that I am not ashamed to make a documentary where the bottom line is a social issue but where I can also allow myself to say that I love paintings, and that I stop for sheep or funny little dogs. The freedom is to say that Im only one person. In the same person there is a real concern for those who have little, but there is a real pleasure in watching paintings. And I cannot separate myself. Im the same person.
A few years ago, there was a big push by a lot of French filmmakers to limit the number of American movies imported for distribution in French theaters. Whats the status of that movement today?
Its very important to us. The French economy in cinema, if not regulated, could end up like an invasion. We need to keep a quota, the French industry does, obliging the French industry to protect not only French films, but also be sure that they show Russian films, German films and Italian films. This is very difficult to do. We need to keep some room for our first-time directors, alternative films, even if they do not make a lot of money. You should see whats happening with American cinema in the world there are some countries that only see American films. What we fight for is the possibility to choose.
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What is your assessment of contemporary independent film?
If you call yourself an independent filmmaker, you first have to have an independent mind. Independence is very difficult because family, school and religion teach us not to be. In terms of the industry, it means being able to do cinema out of the mainstream, apart from the big studios that dont care about us. Because even in France I dont get the big companies to care about me. They sort of admire me. After 46 years of struggle, I get the recognition. I even got a Cesar award. Its like a lifetime achievement thing. But in France we dont dare to call it a lifetime achievement, because it seems like killing. Its like, are you not yet dead? [Laughs.] They gave it to me and they gave it to Jean-Luc Godard. It means that we will never get an award through professional votes because they dont care for us. Its okay. When you get older, they give you something.
To be an independent filmmaker, try to be independent in your mind. Try to open yourself to others. Be curious all the time. If something tickles you, disturbs you, enrages you, you have the beginning of inspiration. I have never done a film just because people asked me to do so. You need something trembling in you like you are in love. If I dont have that, I dont work. Thats why I did so few films. I made very few films for 46 years. But thats okay. Thats okay.