Screenings at PFA glean stories behind noted French filmmaker’s work

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On Nov. 4 and 5, the prolific French film director Agnes Varda visited Berkeley to introduce the series “Afterimage: Agnes Varda on Filmmaking,” which is running at the Pacific Film Archives. Often referred to as “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” Varda may fairly be considered one of the most important female filmmakers of the 20th century. Varda’s innovation in narrative (“Cleo from 5 to 7”), documentary (“Black Panthers”) and autobiography (“The Gleaners and I”) is groundbreaking, spurring theory and critique about the responsibilities and possibilities of female filmmaking. The full theater and the long line of hopefuls waiting for hours to purchase an unclaimed ticket reflected the prowess and influence of this elderly filmmaker.

Monday night’s screening consisted of three of Varda’s short films, “Uncle Yanco,” “L’opera-Mouffe” and “Black Panthers.” These curatorial choices rendered the screening intimate through their local relevance; “Uncle Yanco” portrays Varda’s experience visiting a long-lost uncle from the Bay Area and “Black Panthers” documents the Free Huey Newton movement in Oakland. When introducing each of these films, Varda made a point of expressing her love for San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Tuesday night’s screening was of “The Gleaners and I,” one of Varda’s more famous works, which is a combination of documentary and autobiography in which she travels around France interviewing gleaners of all sorts, constantly redefining the term and applying it to herself and life. At the close of this screening, she was in conversation with Linda Williams, a professor of film and media studies and rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

The question and response sessions that followed both screenings were eye-opening and fulfilling. First and foremost, it was inspiring to see the exuberance, energy and delight emanating from this elderly yet spunky director. While both nights were informative, three topics seemed to particularly spark the audience’s interest and attention. First, the subject of her prominence as a female filmmaker was raised on both nights, and she responded with a surprising (and somewhat disappointing) hesitance to take on the label of feminist filmmaker. To her, filmmaking and her identity as a woman are two separate things; her autobiographical work has to do with her gender because it is relevant to the subject matter, but she refused to receive specific praise or identification within the feminist filmmaking community.

Another controversial topic was the connection between filmmaking and gleaning in “The Gleaners and I.” Among critical and analytical writings on the film, many authors have argued that Varda uses filmmaking itself as an example of gleaning, as she is a gleaner of experiences and images, just as the gleaners she meets glean food or furniture. Varda, however, refused to receive praise or authorship for this meta-cinematic connection, which she claimed was coincidental rather than intentional.

While the conversations continued to cover intriguing points of her life, inspiration and filmmaking process, the final point that resonated at the closing of the program was her gratefulness to institutions such as the Pacific Film Archive that continue to project her films. As she explained, credit for her projects belongs to the voices, people and places documented in them as well as to those who continue projecting them. As for maintaining the importance of her films, she points to the significance of screening films on large screens in the presence of an audience (at home or in theaters) and says it is critical not to reduce films to being “played in the background” of one’s life on a computer or television. For those interested in exploring more of Varda’s work as she intends it to be seen, “Cleo from 5 to 7” will be playing Nov. 22 at the PFA.

Contact Anna Horrocks at [email protected].