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The Gleaners and I


My mom is a pack rat. Our basement is filled with boxes of stuff that no one has even thought of in years. Growing up, our house was filled with stack after stack of papers and mail. She has drawers full of receipts and other drawers full of condiments from various fast food restaurants. She has boxes of craft supplies and other boxes of sewing supplies, both of which are rarely used if used at all. Our fridge is always lined with empty bottles of ketchup, mustard, and other condiments turned upside-down to scrape every last remain from their inner crevices. My mom is a Gleaner.

The Gleaners and I is a film about the gleaners in society. It is a film that offers a new perspective on the lives of a people generally shunned by society. In this film, Agnes Varda travels through various cities, visiting their orchards and farmlands, trying to discover what it is that makes people want to glean. For some people it is a matter of upbringing. For others it is a way of life. For some it is a matter of principle. For others it is a way of survival. Whatever the reason, Varda makes an effort to tell the whole story, hoping perhaps to gain a better understanding of these social outcasts.

This is the central theme of The Gleaners and I: as we look at life through the perspective of another, we gain not only a better understanding of their life, but perhaps a better understanding of life itself. This is a film that seeks to show us as many perspectives as possible. There are three perspectives in particular that shine throughout the film: the perspective of art, the perspective of the gleaner, and the perspective of the filmmaker, Agnes Varda.

The film opens with a painting whose sole subject is a woman gleaning a wheat field. Varda begins to ask questions about who this woman was, why she was doing what she does, and why it was worthy of a painting. These questions lead her on her journey and constantly resurface as she encounters new people and places. As she travels, she seeks out the art made by and about the people she seeks to understand. This leads her to more people, very similar to her main subject, the Gleaner.

She pauses for a moment in a church, and closely examines an artist’s representation of the last judgment. Each shot is either a close up, or contains as part of the shot the magnifying glass used for closer examination of the piece. Close scrutiny of a thrift shop leads her to yet another piece of art about the gleaners. She talks to people who make art out of unwanted things, taking care to closely examine each piece with her camera. She visits the castle of one of her ancestors, a Gleaner who made great advancements in photography and aided the development of the motion picture. She takes great care to closely examine all of his work to offer the proper perspective. Each piece of art depicted is closely examined, perhaps to show how closer examination can lead to new perspectives.

In the same way that this art is closely examined, Varda takes great care to closely examine each person she meets on her journey. She takes the time to stop and ask questions, listen to their stories, and even listen to the songs of their children. If she seeks an even greater understanding, she will even follow someone around as they go through their day in an effort to find out more about these interesting people.

In one case, she finds out that one gleaner has a master’s degree. She follows him around to learn more and discovers that he sells papers to support himself and lives in low income housing so he can live on only what he needs. In his spare time, he teaches English to the other residents of his complex, free of charge. Another man has numerous fridges that he has collected from various piles of unwanted household essentials. Other people strip discarded televisions sets of their copper to sell and support themselves. Many of these people support themselves on the “junk” of society and all of them are given close examination.

Varda considers herself a part of this great society of gleaners. She stoops right alongside them as they glean abandoned fields of their unwanted crop. She captures it all from their perspective, always seeking to learn the whole story. She wastes nothing and finds a use for everything she shoots. Even an obvious accident is turned into “The Dance of the Lens Cap.” She finds the art that is all around her and closely examines it all.

In a way, this film is about documentary and filmmaking itself. In a way, Varda tells us that her purpose, the purpose of a documentarist, the purpose of a filmmaker is to take the ordinary and show how it can be extraordinary. The duty of a documentarist is to ask the questions that are not being asked and offer new perspectives on the world. The duty of a documentarist is to glean the fields of life and find the gems among an unwanted crop. The duty of a documentarist is to stoop down and tell the stories behind the piece of art that is a person’s life. These are also the duties of a filmmaker. These are also the duties of a human being.

I too am a Gleaner. I used to make trips with my dad around the villages of Jakarta, Indonesia on what I called junk hunts. I was only five years old and we never went far from our house, but each trip was a great adventure into some uncharted territory. I would take the spoils from these treasure hunts and make little trinkets that I could use in some other way. I do not know why I would do this. Perhaps it was just an effort to spend time with my dad, who was often gone on business trips, or maybe it was an effort to connect with this third world country I lived in the middle of but remained thousands of miles away.

I collect electronic parts. I do not know why. I have drawers full of wires, cables and assorted parts taken from various broken devices. I cannot bring myself to throw away any electronic device. I still have an old 486 computer that just sits in a closet collecting dust. I will hang on to things for years just for the slim chance that they might be useful in the future, or the even slimmer chance that I might be able to fix it. I do not know why I do this. Maybe it is because I used to watch as my father would fix broken things around the house, handing him screwdrivers, holding wires, or helping in any way I could just to spend time with him. Just to learn more about him. Perhaps I am merely hanging onto these memories. Perhaps I am still trying to spend time with him in my own way.

The point is that we ask these questions. It is important to ask these questions not only about ourselves, but everyone around us. The more we understand the world around us, the more we understand ourselves and even life itself. This is the purpose of documentary. It is important to understand why I hang on to electronics. It is important to understand why my mother has piles of papers scattered about the house. It is important to know why people take the time to glean abandon fields. It is important to know why people make films. The Gleaners and I shows us how it all leads to something greater.

My VCR broke a while ago. I could not fix it. I bought a new one. I kept the broken one. I recently fixed it. Now I have two VCRs.