The Gleaners and I opens with a voiceover from director Agnès Varda reading from an illustrated Larousse dictionary: “G as in gleaning. To glean is to gather after the harvest. A gleaner is one who gleans.” In true Varda fashion, we begin with fundamentals and expand outwards.

In this street-level, first-person documentary, (filmed almost entirely through an early 2000s compact digital camera) Varda proceeds light-footedly through the various subcultures of France’s contemporary gleaners, from rustics foraging for discarded potatoes to artists gleaning the streets for work materials. Historically, the labour of gleaning used to be carried out by women, as depicted by Jean-Francois Millet’s 1867 painting that now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. In his painting, three peasant women stoop in a wheat field after the harvest; they are gleaning to eat. Compared to Millet, Varda’s subjects are more idiosyncratic, their motivations more numerous, and an engaging cross-section of French society emerges as Varda interviews apple farmers, truck drivers, magistrates and passersby who glide in and out of view.

Structurally, The Gleaners and I seems more led by chance encounters and intriguing diversions than a pre-fixed path. In one memorable scene, she meets a man who has a job, salary and social security number, but has eaten food exclusively picked from trash for the last decade. For him, gleaning is “a matter of ethics”. Moments before, we were talking to a court judge in black and white robes. Varda never resorts to didacticism but gives voice to each of her subjects; we are not coerced into agreement, but simply invited to see what they see, and to listen. As film critic A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: “She plucks images and stories from the world around her, finding beauty and nourishment in lives and activities the world prefers to ignore.”

Periodically turning the camera upon herself, Varda playfully reminds us of another kind of scavenging at play, filmmaking. Her riches are not supermarket trash and odd-shaped leeks, but images and impressions, the joy of just noticing. (Though this doesn't stop her from rooting out an assortment of heart-shaped potatoes and a clock with no hands on her travels). As the French film title – Les glaneurs et la glaneuse – makes clear, Varda saw herself as much a part of that lineage that began with Millet’s gleaners, picking kernels in a wheat field. Where many would find trash, she found treasure.

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