The explicit subject matter of this film is "gleaning": the long-standing but currently threatened practice of taking up and making one's own what others leave behind. On that subject alone Agnes Varda has created a remarkable documentary, that covers the history of gleaning, its legal aspects, the wide variety of gleaning practices, and most importantly the people who glean for a number of reasons, not all of which have to do with poverty or destitution.
What interests me most about the documentary, however, is the way in which Varda connects her own practice as a filmmaker to the practice of gleaning. After all filmmaking and especially documentary filmmaking depend upon and take up the remains of reality, that aspect of reality that can be taken for free, and the taking of which does not diminish the possession of its owners. In that sense, filmmaking is essentially gleaning, and in arguing for the rights of gleaners, Varda is also providing a defense of her own practices. What is nice about her involvement in the film is that while she is always present, and while she includes herself among the gleaners presented in the film, she does not in any way push herself upon the viewer. As much as I love the films of recent auteur documentarians such as Moore and Spurlock, there is something very refreshing about the way in which Varda makes her presence felt in this film.
What is perhaps even more remarkable about the film than this provocative analogy is the way in which her film subtly raises questions about the nature of film and responds to a long-standing debate on this topic. There are two major strands of thinking about what is distinctive of film. One is the tradition of thinking (e.g. Bazin) that takes its example from the work of the Lumiere brothers: that film is about taking up reality as it presents itself and preserving it for the viewer, revealing it in a way that is potentially more complete, more detailed and more compelling than its ephemeral presence in time. The other tradition takes its example from George Melies, and suggests that film is illusion, that what is distinctive to film is the capacity to take realities and reorganize them into something new, that is at a remove from reality. In this film, what Varda does is suggest a provocative combination of these approaches. The example from her film that illustrates this is her account of the "junk artist" (I can't remember his name) who takes up trash (what nobody wants) in order to make something of it that compels attention, a work of art. This film is able to accomplish just such a creation.
My favorite "scene" in the film is her discovery, by chance, in a thrift store, of a painting that combines several of the images of gleaning that she had been discussing in her historical overview. She says, roughly, in a voice-over: "this really happened, I didn't make it up." There's something very telling about this scene: that even in a documentary, one must call attention to the reality of the events depicted, for we all know that events can be fabricated. It is such a nice and simple reminder that "realism" is itself a style, and from her early film "Cleo from 5 to 7" to this film Agnes Varda continues to prove herself a subtle master stylist.