The Gift of Collaboration: A Roundtable on Agnès Varda
Filmmakers Alexandra Hidalgo, Sofia Bohdanowicz and Caroline Leone and actress Indra De Bruyn discuss their shared love of the works of Agnès Varda—including La Pointe Courte, Le Bonheur, Cléo de 5 à 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès—and the lessons they have learned from her craft.
Alexandra: The first Agnès Varda film I ever saw was her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I. I was teaching an introduction to film course at Purdue University during my PhD, and the syllabus was created by the professor who originally designed the course. Every film had been directed by white men and then there was Gleaners. I cried the first time I watched it after having to teach violent, white-male driven films to my students week after week—there was this sense of relief, followed by the pure joy of seeing this woman’s journey. Gleaners made it clear that I could also make films and that I could do it on my own terms.
In Gleaners, Varda undergoes such a glorious and seemingly circuitous journey. We see a woman on an adventure to discover how people engage with what others throw away, while also trying to understand her own aging process and mortality. She was really paying attention to what her subjects said, and she respected their choices while also making sense of her own quest. As someone who makes a lot of first-person documentaries, I found the balance between Varda’s story and those of the people she encountered to be intricate and inspiring. She pulls off the almost impossible task of having her life and the lives of others blend into a compelling and rich narrative that is at once diverse and cohesive.
Sofia: The first Varda film I ever saw was her first feature-length film, La Pointe Courte (1955). I was teaching film at a fine arts summer camp for teenagers in Ontario and wanted the students to get to know the French New Wave. I had already watched a lot of Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Truffaut and then I discovered Varda, the grandmother of the New Wave. Watching La Pointe Courte and learning about how she made it saved my life and changed the way I thought films could be made. I didn’t know it was possible to make a film so economically, so quickly and on instinct. The fact that she made this work without having seeing many other films and shot it with such a small budget inspired me to start making my own work. La Pointe Courte was also the first time I had ever seen docu-fiction. The way Varda integrated footage of the actual villagers in Sète within the narrative of the couple revisiting the husband’s hometown opened my eyes to the world of hybrid filmmaking. It helped me develop my first feature film, Never Eat Alone (2016).
Caroline: My first Varda film was Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). I was a film student in love with la Nouvelle Vague, obsessed with Rohmer and Truffaut, and I got hold of a VHS copy of Cléo. It was the first woman-directed film I ever saw, and it completely blew my mind. What struck me most was that from a very simple logline (two hours in a young singer named Cléo’s life, waiting for her cancer test results) Varda developed so many different layers of meanings, thoughts and feelings: mirrors, the feminine, city life, loneliness, existentialism—it’s all there. Varda transformed the whole of Paris into Cléo and Cléo into Paris, creating this very intense and symbiotic relationship. It’s such an intense film. And as a film editor (at the time, a very dedicated editing assistant), I was also totally amazed by the use of editing: every single cut is a “hypnotic highlighter” making us dive more deeply into Cléo’s mind and soul, without a chance to escape. I was in love. So, for the next few years, I watched all of Varda’s work and she became a kind of master-mentor to me, giving me the inspiration and courage I needed to make my own films.
Indra: My first Varda film was the 1965 drama Le Bonheur, about a husband who cheats on the wife he is very much in love with. At the time, I was completely heartbroken and watching a lot of Hollywood and indie romantic films to process my feelings, and I got so sick of their cheesiness. I was simultaneously studying the history of film, and my teacher (an incredible woman) showed us a fragment of Le Bonheur. I think it had an impact on me in a lot of ways—I remember becoming more in touch with how I was feeling because the emotions of the characters are not on display. The actors perform in an almost sec way—it’s the symbolism of the dialogue and the images that creates emotional tension. And what really struck me is that there is no good or bad in the film; every emotion, every thought, every action is understandable and legitimate. I think it made me perceive life itself in a whole different way—to not be too judgemental towards others and myself and to have compassion.
Alexandra: That’s a beautiful way to phrase the impact of the film, Indra!
Sofia: Yes, Indra! That’s exactly right, there is no good or bad in the film (but let’s be clear, I think Jean-Claude Drouot’s character François is a selfish man). Le Bonheur effortlessly balances desire and happiness against fidelity.
Caroline: I think Varda is a master in shooting humanity, and for me it comes from her extreme curiosity about and empathy towards human existence. She manages to look at the simplest things with the eye of a child, writing a very intellectual but also very direct cinematic poetry. In a film like La Pointe Courte, for example, this poetry is touchable…
Alexandra: I think her clear and honest curiosity is what helps her get such great footage of those she features in her work, whether they are actors or documentary participants. She also seems to get at the core of her characters, which comes from how she approaches them compassionately as humans, with a sense of their dignity, whatever their story. For example, in Gleaners, when she’s interviewing the group of people who live in trailers—most filmmakers would try to make us pity them, but she portrays them as warriors and rebels who have fallen under difficult circumstances.
Sofia: Instead of being above her subjects or removed from them she is with them, and I think this makes all the difference. Many filmmakers don’t have the same kind of empathy as she does; it’s a special skill.
Alexandra: Or, they have empathy but they portray people exclusively as victims, which is hard to watch. Victims who fight back tend to generate more empathy in viewers, I think. Her characters also undermine narratives about those who are poor—or in other difficult situations—as having brought it upon themselves. I think films need to take this approach in our current political era.
Sofia: She spotlights people’s strengths and achievements instead of centring a socio-economic narrative. She gives them a platform to truly show their tenacity of spirit and strength of character.
Caroline: For me, empathy is the most important quality a filmmaker should have. Gleaners is such a great first-person film; Varda gives voice to the scavengers while diving into the frame. She is a gleaner of herself, filming her wrinkly hand, gathering pieces of life and meaning from these encounters, and making us travel with her on so many levels.
Indra: It’s also important to point out that Varda never romanticizes people. It’s as though she reveals an encounter between herself and the other person/character that is filled with love, yet still very real. I think the only way to make a film or theatre piece is to create a truly strong connection built on respect and love towards one another. Every time I build up a character I try to find something within them that makes them powerful. That is what makes them human. Even if I have to play a stereotypical victim, I need to find something strong [within them]; otherwise I cannot love the character. I want the viewers to feel (consciously or subconsciously) that strong core that I’ve built. If you have a director who cannot show empathy towards you—towards your character—that core you’ve built shatters to pieces and you’re left with a seemingly shitty performance.
Interestingly, in Cléo de 5 à 7, Cléo starts off as a victim, playing with the cliché of an almost hysterical woman who is terrified of death while at the same time experiencing a complete emptiness and timelessness. I remember that I was watching it with some (men) friends and they absolutely hated her character because she shows her fear so much and almost plays the victim (another common cliché about women), yet in the end she comes across as very strong, almost at one with time(lessness) and her environment.
Alexandra: She faces and shrugs off her mortality. Quite a feat for someone who begins the film with that kind of baggage!
Caroline: For me, Cléo is more of a representation of a discussion about the feminine than a woman in realistic terms. I think Varda is using feminine clichés in a subversive way to create a narrative about certain questions: What it is a woman (of that era)? What is expected of a woman? Who are we, and where will all of this go?
Alexandra: Going back to Indra’s point about how Varda avoids romanticizing her subjects, I think the problem with romanticizing real people or characters is that you’re also romanticizing the conditions they’re living in. Mona in the 1985 drama Vagabond comes to mind as another one of Varda’s complex rebel characters trapped in a complicated situation, but some aspects of that situation are the result of her own choices. By not making Mona into a completely heroic and unflawed character, Varda tells a much more realistic and engaging story about homelessness and what going through life that way entails.
Caroline: Oh, I never thought that Varda was talking about homelessness in Vagabond, or that she was being realistic. I think of it as a film about the structure of life and the life that flows inside this structure. For me, it’s such an allegorical work. There’s no room for improvisation, everything is so precise—the tracking shots, the set-ups—and she uses these meticulous formal elements to explore a character who is completely free, random, alive. It’s such a bold choice. I think Mona, like Cléo, is more of a concept than a representation of a real person.
Sofia: I’m jumping back a bit, but learning that Varda shot La Pointe Courte when she was 24, that her parents re-mortgaged their home in order to enable her to have a budget, and that she wasn’t able to pay her crew until 10 years after the making of the feature was revolutionary for me. Yes, those are extreme circumstances for making a film (she was so brave), but that story made me understand that everything doesn’t need to be perfectly lined up when you go to camera. When I shot Maison du bonheur (2017), I had nothing. I was working an office job and decided to take out a line of credit to shoot a documentary after I was presented with the opportunity to make a film about the daily life of an astrologer living in Montmartre, Paris. Using the skills I had learned from Varda’s cinécriture, and keeping in mind her ability to quickly make a film from intuition and to use whatever she has to shoot these works (film, mini DV, etc.), I was able to find the grounding and strength to pursue the project. Without even having spoken to the astrologer (the wonderful Juliane Sellam), I went and shot the film.
What I learned is that it’s important to use the energy and enthusiasm you have for your film as the fuel for production. If you wait two, three, four plus years to get financing, the film that you make later down the line might not have the same kind of fervour you originally had for the work. I learned that you can figure it out as you go and find what you’re looking for as you shoot. When I shoot, I am able to use the variables (good and bad) around me and look at them as gifts and decide how I am going to integrate them into my production instead of trying to perfect an idea of a film. A film can be a living and breathing organism.
Caroline: Varda taught me to find meaning and narrative in the simplest subjects, and that curiosity and empathy are the main fuels of filmmaking. She is so fascinated by the world, her creative impulse is so strong—she was an inspiration for every bump I had while filming my shorts, and then my first feature. Watching Varda made me think about time, about politics, and about daily life as a magical thing. She is always questioning the value of art and keeping her personal perspective behind the camera, always generous, always magical, an eternal “glaneuse”, gleaning the mundane. It is so powerful to keep your eyes fascinated by the world. I think she has had, and continues to have, a very direct influence on the way I chase my stories and the way I film.
Alexandra: One of the main ways I’ve been influenced by Varda has been to invite those who are making the film with me—whether we’re talking about the crew or those in front of the camera—to provide formative feedback and, even beyond that, to in many ways co-direct their sections of the film alongside me. We get a sense from Gleaners and from her 2008 documentaryThe Beaches of Agnès that the people she’s portraying aren’t just characters being told what to do to—they are also co-creators. This isn’t to say Varda doesn’t have an overall vision; rather, her vision is open to suggestions and to the ways in which others imagine their place in her projects. The things her subjects choose to share with her drive the narrative.
I try to do the same thing. I ask my participants what they want out of the film and how they want to be filmed. Within reason, I try to follow their feedback and suggestions and let their desires for how their story will be told drive the time that I spend with them. I have found that this makes for a better production and post-production experience and results in films that more faithfully reflect the people who made them, not just the director. If people feel like they have a stake in the film, they will be more open to the camera and they’ll help you tell a more multifaceted story. This has been Varda’s key gift to me as a filmmaker and I can’t thank her enough for it.
Indra: I think that is something very beautiful to have learned, Alexandra. It is extremely important to treat your co-workers (in film and theatre, whether it’s a technician, an actor or an assistant) with a lot of respect and to invite them to be a part of your work. You reap what you sow. As an actress, I have felt left out on sets a lot, as though I got dragged in in the middle of a creative process where everybody had forgotten the overall purpose and necessity of the project while doing their job. When there is no love, or when nobody feels the project truly needs to be made, you might as well end it because everyone will do a shitty job.
Sofia: In terms of empowerment, it’s about being with your subjects, getting consent from them and doing your best to portray a true and honest image of who they are on screen.
Indra: I also discovered my love of language because of Agnès Varda. Sometimes it’s difficult (especially in film) to give words the space they deserve and to play with the musicality and poetry they carry, but if you have a beautiful text to work with, your actions or emotions can be very subtle—the words create most of the emotions for you. The way Varda uses language is almost tactile, as if a word or a phrase has a taste, a feeling, a smell, a body. I think she also taught me that every human being has potential within themselves to be everything or anything. And so I tend to create and explore my characters with a lot of compassion. Sometimes you have to play a character you don’t understand—a sadist, a murderer—but I always try to imagine an encounter between myself and the character, and try to find beauty and compassion in something seemingly ugly. I think it’s time to give art back its purpose: to create art that starts from compassion, to create art as a rebellion, to acknowledge the necessity of art in our society and to fund it, regardless of gender or heritage.
Sofia: As fate would have it, during the summer I shot Maison du Bonheur I actually briefly met Varda in her office in Montparnasse and watched her edit Faces Places (2017). I’ll never forget the moment she got on the phone and said to a man on the line: “I know you want to talk about money, but I want to talk about the movie!” Her ability to put her filmmaking practice before finance and to ensure that she is always telling stories the way she wants to tell them, without compromise, has always been very inspiring. The fact that Varda has created such an impressive body of work without the financial support she deserves is astounding. It’s wrong that she hasn’t received backing from institutions; however, I think it really forces her to push the medium, to use what she has in front of her to create truly unique narratives and worlds that are incomparable to what many other filmmakers have made with far more stability and funding.
Alexandra: That’s absolutely true, Sofia. We can’t let that creative force slip through our fingers while we wait for everything to fall into place for our film. If Varda had waited for financing and for a perfectly trained crew for Pointe Courte, she would have never become a filmmaker. In 2015, when she received the Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes, she mentioned that she had gotten a large number of awards throughout her career. She said, “I’ve a bestiary of prizes—a Golden Lion from Venice Film Festival, a Bear from Berlin, dogs, and so on—but never money.” Even someone with her stellar career and her longevity in the business can’t get the funding she needs to make the films she envisions. And yet, here she is, making films at 89 and nominated for an Oscar for Faces Places. From lack of funding comes ingenuity and a focus on story—that is, if you play your cards right. That doesn’t mean we need to stop fighting to have films by women get better funding and to have more studios run by women and more publications like Cléo dedicated to showcasing women’s work in the film industry.
This roundtable has been edited for clarity.
Sofia Bohdanowicz is a Toronto-based filmmaker and the winner of the 2017 Jay Scott Prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association. She won Best Canadian Documentary for Maison du bonheur (2016) from the Vancouver Critics Circle and is currently in production for her third feature film co-produced with actor Deragh Campbell.
Indra de Bruyn was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and is an actress, writer and musician. She graduated in 2018 from the School of Arts in Ghent and is part of an all-female theatre company, Compagnie de Kolifokkers. She is known for her roles in Little Black Spiders (2012), Homeful Bliss (2015) and The Three Ring Circus (2015).
Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, whose videos and activist writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, and Women and Hollywood. Her video book, Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition, was published by Utah State University Press in 2017. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers.
Caroline Leone was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and has worked as director, editor and cinematographer. Her first feature film A Window to Rosalia (2017) won the FIPRESCI Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, among other important prizes around the globe.