September 04, 2019

With a Gleaning Eye… Agnès Varda in the Bay Area

Agnès Varda in The Gleaners and I, 2000.

Agnès Varda in The Gleaners and I, 2000.

The task is to transform society; only the people can do that — not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.

— Huey P. Newton

In my films, I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.

— Agnès Varda

Waves keep coming but the sea doesn’t move, and sunrises are parallel to sunsets.

— Etel Adnan, Surge

The sun rises. A generation crashes to shore. The sun sets. Another wave approaches.

In The Gleaners and I (2000), Agnès Varda is amazed with what new technology — a digital camera — offers her. She discusses it in the film itself, showing us exactly what she means. She can hold the camera with one hand while her other hand picks up a potato from the ground. She can sit in the passenger seat of the car and capture trucks driving past. She can look at herself through the camera and think about the passage of time as seen by the changes in her own hair and skin.

Varda lived for ninety years and made films during sixty-five of them. Very few of her films reached a commercially wide audience in their time, though she developed an ardent following, and won many awards later in life. “I didn’t have a career, I made films. It’s very different. My career is zero.” She was trained as a photographer; had only seen a few movies before making La Pointe Courte (1955), a film that flung open the doors for the French New Wave. Varda was never a master, but the “masters” took her cues and ran with them. She worked more slowly, allowing an inquisitive momentum to guide her process with lightness and humor as she followed her curiosities wherever they led, using them as stepping-stones to get to the heart of any matter. In The Beaches of Agnes (2008), an American film producer and friend of Varda’s suggests that she lost the chance to make a film with Columbia Pictures because she “slapped the hand of the man who pinched her cheek.” She says, “but they didn’t want to give me the final cut, that was a big reason.” Cut to a Los Angeles mural and her voiceover saying: “Forget the studios. I used French money to make my film about murals, Mur Murs.” This she made in 1980, during her second trip to California.

Varda first moved to Hollywood in 1967, when her husband Jacques Demy got a deal with Columbia to direct the 1969 movie Model Shop. Varda loved Los Angeles, was charmed by it. She learned that she had a long-lost cousin, Jean Varda, a painter who emigrated from Greece in the ’40s and was living in a houseboat in Sausalito. She met him there, and in five days, made a twenty-two-minute film called Uncle Yanco, a quirky and heartfelt portrait of a man — a Greek immigrant, a painter — living on a modest boat in Northern California surrounded by young hippies. For the first time he meets his niece, Agnès Varda, a young filmmaker visiting from Paris who records him during her stay. The surface of the film holds this narrative so the viewer can be present with the two of them in this shared, slightly awkward, encounter. She reshoots the moment many times; numerous takes allow us to see their first meeting repeated as performance. The real first meeting, of course, we do not get to see. The layers of intimacy are both there and highly contrived. She lets us in on that secret, opening a space for us to join the two of them where they are. Yanco and Agnès shift between French, English, and Greek — the relatives are a bit timid, hesitant in their words and gestures. Though the two are strangers, it is clear they are kindred.

A still from Black Panthers, 1968.

A still from Black Panthers, 1968.

The following year, Varda returned to the Bay Area, this time to film Black Panthers, a thirty-one-minute documentary shot primarily at a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, organized after Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was arrested in October 1967. Black Panthers was commissioned by French TV and dropped at the last minute, a few months after the May ’68 riots. “We weren’t supposed to reawaken the students’ anger,” Varda says. In this film, unlike Uncle Yanco, Varda opts for a straightforward documentary approach. She doesn’t use her own voice to narrate, but that of an unnamed American woman, presumably photographer Eve Crane. Varda keeps the focus on the Panthers, her camera canvassing the rally, the Panther headquarters, Oakland city streets, then back to the rally, resting on people singing and dancing, eating and talking, sitting in the grass with Mao’s Little Red Book. She films rows of Black Panthers marching, holding “Free Huey” flags in linear formation. These snapshots are interspersed with interview footage of Newton during his incarceration, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) delivering a speech at the rally, and brief, spontaneous interviews with others lingering about. Perhaps most intimately, we are allowed in on a conversation with Kathleen Cleaver, sitting on a porch with other women as she talks directly to the camera about natural hairstyles, notions of beauty in relation to Blackness, and the role of women in the movement.

There is nothing more “Bay Area of the late ’60s” than the two countercultures Varda filmed while here: white hippie artists and Black Power militants. However, these are not discrete worlds; though Sausalito can be considered a classically white hippie artist commune-type setting, it was infused with its own Black and revolutionary inspirations. In August 1967, the year Varda filmed Uncle Yanco, Otis Redding sat “on the dock of the Bay” — a houseboat in Sausalito — writing the lyrics to the song he would record just days before dying in an airplane crash at the age of twenty-six. A few years later, in 1970, Sausalito became the hiding place for Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, two members of the Weathermen, who made a declaration of war on the US government in solidarity with the Black Panthers after the murder of Fred Hampton. Dohrn and Ayers lived anonymously in their houseboat for ten years before giving themselves up in 1980, as recounted by Dohrn in the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground.

The politics in Varda’s films are sometimes overt and sometimes implicit, yet always steady and present. Her second feature-length film, Cléo from 5 to 7, follows a woman through an afternoon while she awaits a cancer diagnosis. She is tall and blonde, classically beautiful, a famous singer. As she wanders the streets of Paris, the Algerian War rages on in the background. We hear it from a taxicab radio, a passing conversation between people in a café, and the soldier Cléo meets and forms a bond with. In Vagabond and The Gleaners and I, Varda turns her attention to homelessness and the practice of collecting discarded food. In 1963, she makes Salut les Cubains, a photomontage from her trip to Cuba after the revolution, and in 1977, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, about abortion and the women’s rights movement.

A still from Uncle Yanco, 1967.

A still from Uncle Yanco, 1967.

And then there’s Nausicaa (1970), which explores the 1967 far-right military coup in Greece. Also commissioned by French television and never aired, the film was blocked by French authorities due to its criticism of the fascist Greek dictatorship still active at the time. It vanished from Varda’s editing room, resurfacing only a few years ago when a print was discovered in Belgium. Nausicaa is perhaps Varda’s most explicitly political film, similar to her friend Chris Marker’s works, and also the closest she would get to autobiography until the turn of the twenty-first century. Its re-emergence allows us to see her position in relation to this political crisis and how it affected her personally (her father was Greek). It also marks a crucial point in Varda’s exploration of the blending of documentary and fiction, of political resistance and personal memory. In this film, an actress plays the character of Agnès while Varda also appears as herself, splitting her representation into two — subject and maker. The film’s decades-long disappearance erased the anti-fascist position expressed in her art; it was also a missing piece of her trajectory of experimentations with subjectivity, framing, and form.

In the case of Black Panthers, I believe Agnès Varda was intending, in part, to evoke the Algerian struggle for her French TV audience back at home. Comparisons have been made between the oppression faced by Black Americans and the racist xenophobia experienced by Algerians living in France. James Baldwin, in a 1986 National Press Club talk, points to this connection. Around ’68 or ’69, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver moved to Algeria themselves, when the Panthers were attempting to build alliances there and expand their international reach. Many leaders of Black Power movements were deeply inspired by Frantz Fanon’s canonical Wretched of the Earth, which he wrote with the Algerian struggle against French colonization in mind. The Cleavers later moved to France for a time as well, where Varda lived for most of her life. I’ve found no indication that Varda and the Cleavers had a personal connection after, or even during, the filming of Black Panthers, but the crossing of paths between the artist and her revolutionary subjects across the US, Europe, and North Africa holds something metaphorically profound for me, in this moment where politics and art seem so at odds. On-the-ground resistance movements and the art that points to them are not the same thing, as we all know. But they are intertwined and related — kindred. Art can offer a framework for thinking about movements creatively, a space of contemplation, a chance to reflect on oneself as a political subject and a creator of work, whatever that work is.

In the final minutes of The Gleaners and I, Varda notes two high points in the making of the film. The first is encountering a man who collects food in the streets after the markets close down. He has a Master’s degree, sells papers outside the train station for money, and volunteers in the evenings, teaching residents, mostly immigrants from Mali and Senegal, how to read and write at the shelter where he lives. She says, “Meeting that man is what impressed me the most. And the time it took to find out about his nocturnal and voluntary activity in a suburban basement.” She spent weeks following him in the streets with her camera as he collected trashed vegetables and fruit. She could’ve stopped at the surface — after all, gleaning is what her film is about — but she found richness in the life of this man, a hidden hero. She let us in on that secret, so we could see it too.

A still from The Gleaners and I.

A still from The Gleaners and I.

Varda’s second high point involves convincing two staff members in an art museum in Villefranche to go into the storage room and pull out a painting by Edmond Hédouin. She films the women moving painting after painting to get the one she wants to see: Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm. Her camera sweeps across the scene depicting women, bales atop their heads, rushing across a field under a darkening sky. The employees struggle to carry the heavy painting outside on a windy afternoon so she can capture it in one shot (keeping in the frame, of course, the hands needed to hold the art upright). From the obscurity of a dusty institutional basement to the light of day, the painting emerges to end the film. “To see them in broad daylight, with stormy gusts lashing against the canvas, was true delight,” Varda says about the figures struggling against the wind in the fields painted on the billowing canvas, and about the figures in her movie — hair blowing in the wind outside the museum in the year 2000, as they hold the 1857 painting for her digital camera to capture, and for us to see.

Fifty years ago, Agnès Varda came to the United States, to the Bay Area, and made two films that were barely distributed at the time. She was holding up a mirror — for people then to see something then, for us to see something now. The stars lying beside us on the street, intertwined and kindred, the wealth below the ground, gathering dust. With our new technologies in one hand, what are we gleaning with the other?

The sea, it doesn’t move. But the waves keep coming.

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