The Power And Legacy Of Agnès Varda's Cinematic Vision

Filmmaker Angeline Gragasin reflects on an icon.

 

The first Agnès Varda film I saw was The Gleaners and I (2000), a documentary about gleaning—the near-extinct practice of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after a harvest. Throughout the film, we meet field gleaners, dumpster divers, artists who work with salvaged materials, and even a Michelin-rated chef who prefers foraging to purchasing ingredients for his gourmet menu.

But the most fascinating subject we meet is a man named Alain, who scavenges daily for discarded food leftovers from the market. Alain eats exclusively from the trash, and is very careful to scavenge a balanced diet for himself. We later discover Alain is a homeless street paper seller with a Master’s degree in Biology, who now lives in a shelter where he’s taught basic French literacy classes to uneducated immigrants for six years.

In her exploration of gleaning in both past and present forms, Varda unearths an unlikely and otherwise invisible hero. That this seemingly ordinary “bum” was actually, on the contrary, an extraordinarily thoughtful and powerful individual, is profoundly compelling. Varda had exposed an entire world then totally unknown to me by telling stories about people I had never stopped to consider. I was inspired to see more of the world through her eyes.

Since this first encounter, I have seen all of her films multiple times over, and watched and read every interview I can get my hands on. In effect, I studied her, as well as her approach, as closely as possible, albeit from a distance.

Varda's practice and philosophy appeal to me not only as a filmmaker, but as an artist, a scholar, a woman, and a human being. Her work is expressive and poetic, but also critical and analytic. It asks us to both think and feel. I find this rare combination of right and left brain activity so extremely pleasurable precisely because it is so unique. I find her work timeless, revelatory, and sublime. It is also often playful, funny, and downright weird.

 
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Varda dressed as a potato in 2011 at the Paul Valery Museum in Sete. Courtesy the author.

 

And so it is fitting that The Elements of Agnès (2017) should be the first story to sprout from Weird Seeds, a new cooperative studio I am developing. We are a community of artists and scholars who transform complex concepts and raw data into compelling and accessible narratives for public understanding. The growing Weird Seeds family is an intentional and unusual mix of interdisciplinary collaborators (including a few fellow NEW INC alums!), all of whom share key values, resources, and goals. Our mission supports fearless, expressive personal stories and critical analyses supported by original research, thoughtful design, and a conscious effort to integrate diverse perspectives. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to conduct such an intimate, on-camera interview with someone whose work speaks directly to the mission and values of the organization I lead.

As Varda approaches her nintieth year on earth, her insights and instincts have only sharpened with age. Throughout her long life, she has resisted convention and defied expectation, and her increasing ability to create and communicate only reinforces and intensifies the everlasting power of a curious mind and strong spirit. Such is the power of her mastery over the art of storytelling.

 
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Angeline Gragasin. Courtesy the author.

 

Interviewing Varda was a lifelong goal I never would have dared imagine possible, if it were not for the support of my collaborators and friends, as well as my team of fellow artist-scholars who inspire me daily and give me the strength and courage to continue in my quest to learn, to understand, to think, and to feel. I hope to reciprocate this courage and support in the form of a portrait of the woman who inspires me most, and who motivates me to be as much like myself as she is herself. Varda’s questions have taught me more about our world than any answer could.

 

Editor: Rain Embuscado