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    The Gleaners and I

    Take me to the gleaners

    French avant-garde director Agnes Varda makes a fun and fascinating documentary about the people who pick up what others leave behind in "The Gleaners and I."


    For the first few minutes, you'd think "The Gleaners and I" was an ordinary documentary about the millennia-old practice of gleaning the abandoned crops from harvested fields and the few people who still practice it now. But that's just the beginning. Suddenly, we cut to a French rap song about people who scavenge off the streets of Paris, and we're off on a romp through the cities and countrysides of France with only this consistent theme: let's look at what people throw away and see who picks it up.

    Original title: Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse.
    Written and directed by: Agnes Varda.
    Featuring: Bodan Litnanski, Francois Wertheimer.
    In French with English subtitles.
    The film is more than a documentary — it's a kind of personal essay on celluloid by French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda, director of "Le Bonheur" and "Sans Toit Ni Loi" (available here as "Vagabond"). She's inspired by several old paintings that depict women picking up grain from the fields, and goes on to look for this traditional practice in all of its modern forms, observing some fascinating things along the way.

    One of the most interesting things is the way different people look at the same phenomenon differently, depending on their relationship to it. A supermarket manager explains how certain food must be removed from the store at a certain point, whether it's still edible or not; it's a matter of law and public health as well as good business. From the scavenger's point of view, the manager is crazy — in fact, so is the entire way of life he represents. People throw away plenty of good food every day, and it's almost a crime not to pick it up out of the trash and eat it. Yum yum.

    The film's funniest moment turns on exactly this kind of difference in perspective. An artist, who bikes through the region looking for found objects to use in his creations, shows Varda how he finds his materials.

    "Some of the towns are thoughtful enough to publish a map like this, showing the areas and times where objects will be available on the streets," he says, holding up just such a map.

    "But isn't that actually a map of dates for people to put out their trash?" Varda notes.

    "Oh, yeah, right," says the artist, as if he's never considered that the system wasn't set up simply for his benefit. Trash and treasure, clearly, are in the eyes of the beholder.

    The French title is slightly different from the English one, and for a reason. "Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse" ("The Gleaners and the [female] Gleaner") clearly points to Varda's role in this tradition — she's making a point about herself too. As a filmmaker, she prowls the country picking up pieces of people's experience and harvesting images of innocent bystanders. ("Vagabond," in particular, was this way, a cinema vérité work that involved taking one actress into the countryside and filming her interactions with the ordinary people along the way.)

    "The Gleaners and I" is a pleasure to watch — part documentary, part personal essay, part unguided tour. It's a chance to understand ourselves differently by seeing the things we choose not to use; to gain perspective on our culture through the people on its margins; and to enjoy the game of Varda's own scavenger hunt among the fields and alleys and outcasts of France.

    MARCH 5, 2001

    Reader comments on The Gleaners and I:

  • At last a real film about real people.   from Lysette, Oct 26, 2001
  • Les glaneurs et la glaneuse   from Thomas Hilt, Jan 13, 2002
  • The Gleaners   from Andy, Aug 21, 2002

  • Post a comment on "The Gleaners and I"