You're living on the street and you're craving something hot
Well it's simmering in the dumpster back by Popeye's parking lot
Smell the rich aroma, it's a fragrance to entice
Dirty deep fried chicken and dirty dirty rice.
-- "Dirty Dirty Rice," Timbuk3
The Gleaners and I / Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) and Two Years Later (2002). Director: Agnés Varda. Available on VHS and DVD. Zeitgeist Films.
Though Agnés Varda's inspiration was Millet's bucolic painting of a charming country tradition, her film The Gleaners and I is a meditation on subjective assessments of utility and an exposé of waste.
Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs farmers to provide for the less fortunate. "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God."
The French took this injunction to heart, passing laws granting a legal right to glean, even on private property. Though many French are aware of the right, most were fuzzy on the specifics. In a particularly nice touch, Varda queries citizens-on-the-street, who provide a variety of answers about when and how much gleaning is permitted, then presents lawyers, clutching fat red books of French law, who explain what is and is not kosher. Curiously, Varda did not interview religious authorities.
Varda found few still hewing to the traditional farm-field practice. Most of her gleaners are urban, poor, and gleaning refuse rather than leavings. Some live in desperate situations through their own fault; others had bad fortune. Though aware of their failings, Varda doesn't go out of her way to expose or to shield them. Several of her city-dwelling subjects glean for their daily bread. Whether digging in dumpsters behind restaurants and groceries, or picking through bruised, wilted produce on the streets of Paris's markets, these folks get by on what most of us would deem unappetizing if not downright unsafe. But unsafe, as Varda learns, is a relative term. One city gleaner scornfully mocks sell-by dates, displaying item after sealed grocery item, including fine patés tossed for being a day or two past the deadline. Another city gleaner, munching produce and bread right off the pavement, tells Varda that his diet is healthful compared to the high-sodium, high-fat fast foods many consume. Varda's camera pans across the square at the end of a morning's market, showing a street littered with food of nearly every kind. In the country, Gypsy gleaners show her the dumping sites for the truckloads of potatoes that are unsellable at grocery stores because they're non-standard in size or shape. These scenes of obscene mountains of food, more than even the most diligent, desperate gleaners could carry away, speak for themselves.
Gleaning isn't restricted to sustenance. One of Varda's gleaners is a chef who picks his own herbs and produce to ensure the quality of his kitchen. He uses up everything; bones and trimmings go into the stockpot. A truly telling moment comes when Varda interviews an artist who works in found materials. He explains that his arondissement publishes a map showing where and when one can pick up abandoned items. When Varda gently suggests that the map was actually created to inform residents of scheduled discard days, he is momentarily gob-smacked. "Yes," he agrees. "Yes, one could use it for that too."
The Gleaners and I never questions whether Varda should be a part of the story she tells. She turns the camera on herself, unsparingly reflecting on the marks of age on her body and her gleaning of time, which she fears is running out. Varda had no intention to produce journalistic coverage of waste in our society. She has a moral point of view, but is, or was, as prone to occasionally wasting stuff as the rest of us.
There are occasional side journeys for interviewees' reminiscences. One femme who had been interviewed about gleaning tells the story of how she met her husband, a curious inclusion. However, as Varda says, she too is a gleaner, of information and stories. I'm not able to fault her for indulging her own particular form of gleaning by including a rather charming story, in a film that makes one squirm in shame through charm rather than finger-wagging didacticism.
The Gleaners and I touched a nerve in France. Hundreds of viewers sent Varda letters, cards, photos, and mementos of things they had gleaned. Her love for the heart-shaped potatoes found in the potato dumps led to a deluge of pommes with every post. In her 2002 follow-up, Varda revisited the people she introduced to us, plus others whose reactions to the first film had touched her deeply.
Roxanne Bogucka is senior editor, cinema, for hybridmagazine.com, where portions of this review appeared previously.