Top of the Docs #50 – The Gleaners and I (2000)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be exploring documentaries that explore ageing and the effect it can have on people!

By the year 2000, Agnès Varda had already been active as a filmmaker for 45 years. Her career had featured a host of masterpieces and plenty of critical acclaim with films such as Cléo de 5 à 7 and Daguerréotypes bringing her the career many dream of. However, at the dawn of the millennium, her whole approach to filmmaking would change. She would begin a new chapter of her career, one that is defined by her adaption to emerging technologies.

Focusing on those who glean, across a variety of social and cultural experiences, from traditional gleaners to new urban gleaners and beyond, The Gleaners and I is a film not just revolutionary for its ground-breaking use of handheld digital cameras, but also for the way in which Varda set about making the film. To get as broad a scope as possible Varda asked everyone she knew to speak to as wide a range of people as possible. While shooting she would practically edit as each new subject’s segment had finished filming, all while scouting the next location.

The guerrilla nature of Varda’s filmmaking felt as fresh as her work at the vanguard of the French New Wave. However, what made this film special is the injection of Varda herself into the film as is often found in her documentary work. Varda is such a fun and entertaining character, almost allowing play to dictate the way in which she makes her films. Using the new digital technology as a toy gives the film such a vibrant energy making it more fun than a documentary about gleaning has any right to be.

Varda’s use of the camera also allows her to examine herself, making her take stock of her age through the discovery of her first grey hairs, as well as focusing on how her hands have aged. Despite this, Varda proves that she is still filled with originality, jumping headfirst into a medium many were still sceptical even to classify as cinema.

Not shy of reflecting on her work, Varda by Agnes looks back on her career and life. The film explores the depths of her filmography and work, what changed and why. It creates a comprehensive image of Varda as the complete filmmaker, one who isn’t daunted by genre, medium, or the changes time brings. The Gleaners and I stands out as perhaps the clearest indication of her genius. Her filmmaking is at its most intelligent, revolutionary, and fun in this documentary, and marks a new chapter in her career that would feature a host of digital films, each filled with that same sense of enjoyment. Varda is of course a master artist, and The Gleaners and I shows that this can be attributed across all forms, regardless of the tools at her disposal.

The Gleaners and I trailer.

Header image courtesy of Agnès Varda and the BFI.