The Elements of Agnès

Documentary film ∙ 6min | 2017

In March 2017, I had the great honor and pleasure of interviewing my hero, Agnès Varda, one of cinema’s oldest and most influential pioneers. This was something I hadn’t expected to happen when and how it did—which was very last-minute, confirmed less than 24 hours in advance.

There simply wasn’t enough time to panic, although I very well could have considering meeting and interviewing Agnès was one of my top three lifetime goals. Meeting someone who means so much to you when you yourself are just another stranger to them is a bizarre and humbling experience.

Interview with Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery, NYC. With support from the French Institute Alliance Française, Janus Films, Cinetic Media, and Ciné-Tamaris.

Playful, funny, and downright weird

The first Agnès Varda film I saw was The Gleaners and I, her 2000 documentary about gleaning, the near-extinct practice of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after a harvest. Throughout the film, we meet field gleaners, dumpster divers, artists who work with salvaged materials, even a Michelin-rated chef who prefers foraging to purchasing ingredients for his gourmet menu. But the most fascinating subject of all is a man named Alain who scavenges daily for discarded food leftover from the market. Alain eats exclusively from the trash and is very careful to scavenge a balanced diet for himself. We later discover Alain is a homeless street paper seller with a Masters’ degree in Biology who now lives in a shelter, where he’s taught basic French literacy classes to uneducated immigrants for six years (!).

In her exploration of gleaning in both past and present forms, Agnès unearths a most unlikely and otherwise invisible hero. That this seemingly ordinary “bum” was actually—on the contrary—an extraordinarily thoughtful and powerful individual, was profoundly compelling. Agnès had exposed an entire world then totally unknown to me, through the telling of stories about people I had never before truly considered. I was inspired to learn to see more of the world through her eyes.

Since this first encounter, I have seen all of her films, multiple times over, watched and read every interview I can get my hands on—in effect, studied her and her approach as closely as possible, albeit from a distance. Agnès’ practice and philosophy appeal to me not only as a filmmaker, but as an artist and scholar, as a woman and human being. Her work is expressive and poetic yet also somehow critical and analytic. It asks one to both think and feel. I find this rare combination of right and left brain activity so extremely pleasureable precisely because it is so unique. I find her work timeless, revelatory, and sublime. It is also often playful, funny, and downright weird.

Varda dressed as a potato in 2011 at the Paul Valery Museum in Sete. The costume was originally created for the 2003 Venice Biennale to promote Patatutopia, an installation inspired by the heart-shaped potatoes she collected during the filming of The Gleaners and I [2000.]

As Agnès approaches her 90th year on earth, her insights and instincts have only sharpened with age. Throughout her long life, she has resisted convention and defied expectation, and her increasing ability to create and communicate—her mastery of the art of storytelling—only reinforces and intensifies the everlasting power of a curious mind and strong spirit.

Interviewing Agnès was a lifelong goal I would never have dared achieve were it not for the support of my collaborators and friends, my team of fellow artist-scholars who inspire me daily and give me the strength and courage to continue in my quest to learn, to understand, to think, and to feel. I hope to reciprocate this courage and support in the form of a portrait of the woman who inspires me most, who motivates me to be as much like myself as she is herself. Agnes’ questions have taught me more about our world than any answer ever could.

Gragasin as Varda Dressed as a Potato at the 2013 Storefront for Art & Architecture Critical Halloween Party.

🥔 A version of this article was originally published in the NEW INC Stream as "The Power And Legacy Of Agnès Varda's Cinematic Vision" on September 27, 2017, edited by Rain Embuscado. Special thanks to Spencer Murphy, Thomas Jockin, Natascha Bodemann, and Rosalie Varda.

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