“A matter of ethics.”
French director Agnes Varda’s meditative documentary The Gleaners and I, takes a look at the age-old practice of “gleaning.” Historically, gleaners were gatherers who arrived in the fields following the harvest, and then gathered the produce left behind. As a practice with an historic and a legal past, gleaning still continues to this day, and Varda records different aspects of gleaning using a new handheld digital camera.
Wisely, Varda begins with the aspects of gleaning that leap out at the viewer, and she follows people who appear in the fields to gather the leftovers. Some people glean simply because they can’t stand to let items go to waste, and other people glean out of necessity. Grassroots organizations devoted to feeding the poor scour the fields for useable food items. In one instance, Varda films gypsies living in a condemned group of caravans as they pick potatoes out of the field. Not only are potatoes left in the fields due to the inefficiency of modern harvesting equipment, but potatoes that are too large are rejected. In another instance, Varda interviews a family who are harvesting an unclaimed crop of grapes after discovering an abandoned vineyard.
From the obvious aspects of gleaning Varda moves on and documents gleaning in urban areas. One group of homeless young people are accused of vandalizing dustbins when they glean, and the supermarket manager responds by pouring bleach over the bins. Others are interviewed who sift through the remnants of the marketplace, and one man maintains that in an “overconsuming society” gleaning is a “matter of ethics.”
But there are people who glean for other than food, and Varda films an artist who makes sorties on his bicycle to gather discarded plunder, and a hobbyist who creates fantastic totem towers of rubbish.
There is a sense of wonder here at human nature, and the apparent need some humans have to stop waste, or to create from waste. This is a thought provoking documentary full of subtle social commentary, and after watching various gleaners at work, one cannot help but extrapolate to larger commentaries about the society in which we live. The DVD also contains Gleaners and I: Two Years Later. This film acts as a companion piece and includes follow up interviews with people who appeared in the first film and also a protest march against the practice of gleaning. In French with English subtitles.