At the 2013 AFI Fest, Agnes Varda told her audience that if one really wanted to understand her, they should look to her documentaries. Varda made documentaries throughout her career, interspersed with shorts and features, on a variety of subjects. Her best-known documentary was 2000's The Gleaners and I, an examination of France's cultural history of "gleaning," in all the word's definitions. There are crop gleaners who follow the harvest, protected by French law, and immortalized in art. There are urban gleaners who pick through trash to find food or art or inspiration. And of course, there is Varda the filmmaker, gleaning what truths about life that she can from her interview subjects, while also turning her digital camera on herself. What follows is a complex documentary that - like its director/subject - has many definitions and perspectives.
The film opens with Varda introducing her viewers to the romantic image of gleaners they're probably most familiar with - a series of paintings depicting gleaning as a noble, if backbreaking, labor. Varda quickly dismisses that halcyon image by introducing the viewers to modern day gleaners - thrifty, poor men and women stuffing potatoes or oysters or apples into plastic bags and pails. A different film would have stayed with these homeless folks on the fringes of society, but Varda doesn't dwell solely on their poverty. This is a film about people, and Varda finds some fascinating examples - chefs, anarchists, lawyers, teachers, and artists, of course.