The Conversation with Agnes Varda moderated by film critic and historian Jean Michel Frodon took place at the Locarno International Film Festival on 12 August. The rain clouds cleared just as Ms. Varda took the outdoor stage. Speaking about her career in photography, filmmaking and as an installation artist, Varda offered honest insights about being categorized both as a female filmmaker and part of the New Wave, as well as anecdotes and words of wisdom about her past and present work.
Frodon: There was an important event in the history of world cinema -- the New Wave. Just before the official opening of the Locarno Festival we screened "The 400 Blows," but actually you started the New Wave with your film "La Point Courte," which was quite original, stunning, and unlike all the others. You were no film buff, you were a woman, not a cinephile and being a woman with quite unique characteristics.
Varda: I’m troubled with the term “New Wave”. The New Wave included a number of young, new filmmakers but to me, there was the group the Cahiers du Cinema critics who loved American films, among them Truffaut. And like me, not knowing anything about filmmaking, were Jacques Demy, Chris Marker, and me. We were farther to the left than the others. These people were grouped in the same category as if we were a group. I felt different from the Cahiers du Cinema movement. I had no knowledge of French and American cinema, and I thought structure was more important than the way the films were shot.
My references were not from film. For example: When people would put their hands on their knees, I called that an “Egyptian shot,” or I would say, “Face” rather than “close up.” I knew nothing about film jargon.
Frodon: You did photography and theatre so you were in an artistic circle.
Varda: The theatre-goers, do not necessarily go to movies and vice versa. Actually the disciplines are quite separate. I watched many theatre plays but I didn’t know about cinema. I went to a lot of museums. I read a lot. I had my diploma. I took a year off just to read. I got up at nine in the morning, and read all afternoon as if I was going to school. I would read great classics. You don’t have time to read at school. This helped me a lot to think.
About "La Pointe Courte"
In those days we didn’t have portable recording devices so I would go home and write down what I heard from the fishermen and the townspeople so I wouldn’t forget it. Philippe Noiret (the star) wanted to express something in films, and I said, “You shouldn’t express anything; you must stand still and do not express anything.” He found this experience quite weird. One day I shot the back of his head and I said, “I love the back of your head” and when I told him, he was a bit frustrated.
I think we should never forget that the fisherman, the actors -- they were never paid for the film. We ate sandwiches, we lived in the same house, a woman would invite us for meals, there were no allowances to get food.
Frodon: Cinema recalls moments and keeps them.
Varda: Real life mixes with my film memories. In "The Gleaners and I" -- those who never talk were given a voice. I wanted to make a film about the homeless, who go and rummage in the rubbage. They (the Gleaners) had a lot to say about society. I would go to festivals and screen "The Gleaners and I" and it was applauded. The audience is applauding the people in the film, not me. It was essentially the gleaners who do glean out of pleasure, out of necessity -- that’s the subject, and you applaud people who decide to share their thoughts. You grasp people in a moment in their lives.
In "The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later," I tried to find the people I had shot. They were hard to find, because many are homeless and others just vanished. I was impressed they were happy to see me again, not just shot and forgotten and that life goes on. Some were in better conditions, some in the hospital. I was impressed by the woman in the camper who lives there with a guy whom she met in a café and I find her in the square. She’s happy to see me. “I feel better; I’m in love.” She said the film changed her life. “I drink less. Because I used to drink 12 rose wines, now two.”
On Making Documentaries
Making documentaries is a school of life. I want to show time passing. People give you amazing surprises. I am sometimes intimidated by actors but less by real people.
Shooting documentaries is important in my life. I think you learn more by making documentary films. My film about the Black Panthers (Huey) is a real document. It happened. I was witness to this.
It is a fiction film but some say they saw Mona (the protagonist) walk by them. I wanted to keep the documentary film texture; this entitles me to break down barriers between documentary and fiction. In documentaries there are people who look like characters.
Frodon: Do you learn new things when you watch your films again?
Varda: No. When a film is released and critics review my films, I learn things. (Varda recounts trying to film near her house and wanting to plug in a cable at a shop, but was turned down because of the cost of the electricity.) “I had a 90 meter long cable and ran it through the mailbox to my home. It was fine it was a small neighborhood; butchers, bakers, hair dressers, green grocers and tailors. A critic wrote that he was quite impressed ‘she had this baby, she would take care of him’ and described the 90 meter cable as an umbilical cord because I didn’t want to be away from my baby. I was very fond of my baby but I never thought about that at the time. It made me think.
Frodon: You’ve been difficult to define. You now do installations for galleries and museums, and make art objects. Is this a second job?
Varda: It is my third life. I had a life as a photographer, then a filmmaker starting in 1954. For the last 10 years I am a video artist -- a visual artist. If you go to museums there’s a different way to invade the space. I created things with a screen. Sometimes the screen shows videos; each chair facing the screen corresponds with a video clip, as if I want to reconcile with cinematography. I had fun making photographs on silver nitrate. Next to that I would show video clips with people moving, cows moving. Now at the end of my life, we have to reconcile movement and mobility; what is digital and analog. That is what I’m doing in my installations; to make peace and reconcile.
I didn’t make "Documenteur" intentionally; I would feel the weight of this city with lots of despair, and this coincided with a negative time in my life. I felt a desire to tell about this woman and child, along with this depressive city. That’s how it happened. It just came about. Maybe it was my desire to express things. To let go.
Varda asks Frodon
When we started talking you said I’m a filmmaker and a woman. I don’t like categories. I’m a woman, but I do not necessarily make women films.
I asked Varda to expand on her feelings about being labeled as a ‘woman’ director.
Varda: That hasn’t to do with feminism it is about what I could do with cinécriture (writing on film), -- the idea I had for cinema. My life as a feminist is more related to facts; fighting for contraception and people who fight for abortion rights. I have been there with women on these battles. In my film "One Sings, the Other Doesn’t" (1978) it was a time when women wouldn’t dare to speak about their problems. It was better for a while but today again it’s not so good with abortion clinics closing, and so on. I fight for that. To make a statement about that. I don’t oblige myself to make feminist films because it’s complex. I cannot make a propaganda film because cinema is more interesting. I would never film something degrading. You can speak about rape, but you cannot film it. It’s very difficult what you can show -- the body of a woman, the body of a man. I give a precise point of view with extreme intensity but it cannot be made against women or men.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell presents international workshops and seminars on screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com, http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog