The Gleaners and I


Recently I saw Agnès Varda’s delightful, and subversive, documentary THE GLEANERS AND I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse).

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of gleaning, it is the tradition of collecting left over crops from a farmer’s field once the harvest was finished.

This is a pattern that mimics nature. The lion makes the kill and takes the most desirable parts while the scavengers get what is left over. Gleaners are everywhere in our society, but we tend to marginalize and ignore them.

For example, on my way to the screening, I saw a homeless man going through recycling bins looking for liquor and wine bottles.

In her documentary, Varda shows the traditional gleaners working the fields and vineyards of France, and then takes us to Paris where the urban gleaners are hard at work gathering leftover food from restaurant garbage bins.

While no one would confess to willfully creating waste, we still live in a wasteful society. As consumers we have been hard-wired to desire only the latest fashion and technology. Companies such as Apple release a constant stream of newer and flashier devices to make us cast off our older, but perfectly reliable, technology.

In a nutshell, it is neither fashionable or desirable to want the old.

Varda was 72 when she made the film, and was obviously worried about the effect of encroaching old age. In the film she shows her wrinkled hands and greying hair. It’s as if she is saying, “Am I relevant? Do I still have value?”

Our perception of value has been skewed by marketing and advertising; perverted so that we only lust for the newest, while throwing away everything else.

There is a sequence in the film that really resonated with me. It is the dance of the lens cap. Varda accidentally left her camera running and filmed a few minutes of footage of the lens cap dangling on the end of its string. Normally, this footage would have been relegated to the cutting bin, but Varda whimsically gives it a jazz score and creates one of the most memorable moments in the film.

This ‘accident’ in the hands of an artist becomes real art, and demonstrates that anything can have value.

I began to look at the film in those terms, and it became clear that as a writer I am basically a gleaner – I work through a field that has been harvested many times and try to find something of value to take away.