10 November 2012

Agnes Varda: The Last Straw

Following the harvest, comes the gleaning.  Clusters of grapes left on the vine,  apples that fall from the tree and are bruised,  potatoes with imperfect shapes, all  edible fruits of an earth that nourishes the gleaners who save them from rotting.   La pomme de terre,  apple of the earth, the French call the potato.

Gleaning is a term with biblical overtones to modern ears.  The practice followed in the wake of the beginnings of organized agriculture.  Both Christian and Jewish religious texts commend farmers to share a portion of the harvest with others and, in recent years, some have explicitly incorporated the practice into efforts to help the needy in prosperous countries.  But gleaning is a foreign practice to many modern urban dwellers, at least when it comes to food. We have replaced the concept with  ugly words: scrounging, scavenging, and at the extreme, stealing.

But in France gleaning is still a recognized part of the annual harvest.  When farmers gather their crops, the poor and the thrifty are allowed to take what has been rejected for commercial purposes. This practice is more than a custom; the right to glean (droit de glanage) was the way the poorest and weakest members of rural society, dating from the Middle Ages, were permitted to obtain food.  These images accurately portray the active role that women have played in gleaning.  What they do not show is that this activity has often been associated with controversy: the need of peasants for food versus the landowners' sense of ownership.
Filmmaker Agnes Varda, in her documentary Les Glaneur et la glanesue (2000) shows both the urban and rural practice is still a salient part of French life.  A debate among residents of the coastal town of  Nourmoutier is lively, humorous, and even confusiong, about the rules for how many buckets of oysters the locals may collect after a storm. Joining some local gypsies as they comb through mounds of potatoes dumped in the fields of Beauce, Varda finds a perfectly heart-shaped potato.  For her it becomes a symbol of food as an expression of the love between humans and earth.
The vineyards of Pommard appear again, as they did in Varda's fictional 1985 film La Vagabond.  In the earlier film, a female drifter is found frozen to death in a ditch, smeared with grape pulp.  The film, like other tales of travel and travail before it, the Odyssey and Aeneid, does not begin at the beginning but moves back and forth in time and among witnesses to the descent into invisibility of the young Mona Bergeron.

England used to, and France still does have laws that explicitly permit gleaning. How explicit?  Varda interviews the black-robed M. Dessaud, "our lawyer in the fields," a  magistrate standing in the cabbage rows who explains  the  French penal code (Article R-26.10) and the royal edict of Nov. 2, 1554, that establish the right to glean.  This bureaucratic side of the national temperament is  embodied today at the personal level by an apple farmer who explains the system he has developed for registering and licensing those who wish to gather his unharvested fruit.

For urban gleaners, the orderly system of trash collection makes it at once more challenging to recover food and easier to hunt for other items like cast-off clothing or appliances that can be mended.   Varda introduces us to a  biology teacher, a vegetarian,  who has lived in a shelter for eight years and teaches reading to immigrants in the evenings. He is eating stale bread plucked from a trash bin while he explains to Varda the nutritional challenges of scavenging for food. Again, two years later, Varda revisits the people of Le Glaneur et la Glaneuse.  No one has suffered the grisly fate of Varda's vagabond but the world is still cold, if not frozen.

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners And I), 2000, and Sans toit ni loi (The Vagabond - a rough translation of the French title would With Neither Roof Nor Law) 1984, are available on DVD.

The image that started it all for Varda: The Gleaners of Chamboudouin  During her return to Musee Paul Dini she helps the staff bring the 19th century painting out of storage and, when they take it outdoors to be filmed in the light, a strong wind begins to blow as it does in Hedouin's painting. 

Mea Culpa:  How could I have neglected to point out this remarkable website (listed in my links column)?!  Hay In Art.
1. Agnes Varda - from The Gleaners And I, 2000.
2. Jean-Francois Millet - Les Glaneuses, 1857, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Robert Doisneau - The Coal Gleaners> Canal Saint-Marttin. Alberrvilliers. 1945, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Pierre-Edmond Hedouin - The Gleaners Of Chamboudouin, 1857, Musee Paul Din, Villefranche-sur-mer.


elpresley said...

Very beautiful your article. While half the world throw the food is left over, the other half goes hungry. Thanks for writing. Greetings.

Rouchswalwe said...

This essay touches my heart. I am reminded of my "Gomi-picking" days whilst living in Japan. The term was coined by those of us who came from abroad to live and work in the cities of Japan. On "Big-Gomi" day, we would pick up discarded kotatsu tables and broken bookshelves to clean up and repair. In the late fall, we would take a train out to the groves and fields. One year, we found Persimmons that had been left behind. Those were the most delicious Persimmons!

Jane said...

Elpresley, "The Gleaners And I" and "The Vagabond" are wonderful, powerful films. If there is beauty here it comes from Varda's inspirations. Thank you.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, I didn't know what the word 'gomi" meant until I looked it up. I'm not surprised that the Japanese have a different rules for discarding things. It's too easy in a big country to forget that space isn't endless. Your time in japan has influenced the way you photograph, I think.

Tania said...

Agnès Varda manages to put a lot of humanity in her films. I recommend, if you have not seen it yet, "The Beaches of Agnes," a sort of autobiography film, a self-portrait full of creativity and humor.

Jane said...

Tania, yes. Until I saw "Beaches of Agnes" I hadn't realized that Varda was born in Belgium. Ah, the French like to take credit for anyone accomplished who spends time in France.

Anonymous said...

What a marvelous and educational piece this was. I loved the art, but the information was truly interesting. Thank you for all the work you put into this blog. A long time fan who seldom comments. Love your work. Gin

Jane said...

So nice to hear from you again! I found these films through the public library, even though I live in a large city, Varda's work doesn't get to the theaters. I hope you get to see them,as my words don't do them justice - although I tried. Thanks for commenting.