The Gleaners & I
Gleaning is the traditional custom of peasants scavenging fields of wheat and other crops after these have been harvested by farmers and growers. The practice takes on modern and curious forms in Agnes Varda's charming documentary, The Gleaners & I.
Criss-crossing the French countryside on her own, Varda interviews farm leftover pickers as well as contemporary forms of gleaners in the cities. Some do so because they're poor, but just as many live off society's scraps as a political act and intellectual exercise. In the end, Varda includes herself as a cinematic gleaner.
The 84-year-old filmmaker's influence in French cinema is often underrated. Her career preceded the New Wavers, aligned more with the avant garde Left Bank scene, but Varda's experimental style has been cited for helping invent the Nouveau Vague.
Next to her 1984 hit feature, Vagabond, about a young woman living on the streets in Paris, The Gleaners & I is probably the project that has most resonated with audiences. Filmed in 2000 entirely on a small handheld video camera, what begins as a look at an old tradition turns into a surprisingly touching and insightful exploration of modern consumer economics, socio-political activism and personal artistic expression.
Featuring herself on screen and making comments, Varda clearly sides with gleaners of all stripes. Unlike the Michael Moore school, Varda never tries to confront or ridicule. She interacts in empathetic and personal ways so that "waste not, want not" becomes a matter of ethics and salvaging an artistic manifesto.
The fact that the documentary connects so intimately suggests the desire to forage is in our nature. We all love picking up free stuff, especially if it's going to be dumped anyway. The meek may inherit the earth, but Varda advocates that we glean from it.
The Gleaners & I, today, 9.30pm, Hong Kong Arts Centre. Part of the 2013 Hong Kong Independent Film Festival programme