As a film student, I was taught about the French New Wave, the film movement of the 50's and the 60's that shaped cinema by rejecting the traditional forms of filmmaking and creating a new language. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and other from the 'Cahiers Du Cinema' group were the face of the movement, and films such as 400 Blows and Breathless are essential watch for students of cinema.
Then there were filmmakers such as Agnes Varda, who represented the 'left bank directors', a group of documentary filmmakers who weren't as well known, but more experimental in their form and approach. Varda is counted among the pioneers of the French New Wave. Her work actually predates the movement. She made her first film 5 years before Truffaut and Godard did.
Varda, who passed away last week at the age of 90, is cited as the 'Grandmother/mother of the French New Wave'. She was also a feminist filmmaker. For the longest time, I wasn't aware of her work. I first heard of her last year when she got her first Oscar nomination for the documentary feature Faces Places at the age of 89 (becoming the oldest person to be nominated in any competitive category). She was also presented with an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Cinema.
Faces Places was unlike any other documentary I have ever watched, which drew me in completely to Varda's persona and her filmmaking style. In the film she collaborates with 35-year-old artist and photographer JR. The two documented their journey as they travelled to villages in France, meeting people, taking portraits, printing them and pasting them on walls. Now, that sounds like a great road trip film, but it was also so much more. It was a personal and public celebration of the lives of people living in the margins. It was about the bond between the two artists and their reflections on the art they create. (Fun fact: JR was one of the artists who presented his artwork at the Sassoon Dock 2017 project by St+Art India, which celebrated life and identity of the Koli community).
As I read more about Varda and kept discovering her work online, I realized her filmography was unlike anything I had seen before. She never boxed herself, she didn't belong to any particular style or segment, her art was free flowing, lyrical and vibrant, a hybrid blurring the lines of fiction and documentary. You can identify her work: Long tracking shots, the editing style of intercutting, and fast cuts were some of her trademarks. Varda, also an editor herself, would experiment with the sound. Sometimes, she juxtaposed monochrome visuals with colour; I was introduced to this technique in Cléo from 5 to 7. The film begins with a tarot card reader, and the long top angle shot in colour is set in contrast to the entire film, which in monochrome. I can see what Martin Scorsese (who wrote a heartfelt note remembering Varda) means when he says, "To all young filmmakers, you need to watch Agnes Varda's pictures".
Here are a few things you need to know about the filmmaker:
Varda's career, which started as a still photographer, spans sixty five years. Photographs remained an integral part of her filmography. "I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films," is how she described the fluid relation between her films and photography. Varda never went to a film school. Photography made her observe people and the world around her. She had only watched about ten films before she made her first film La Pointe Courte (1955) on a budget tenth the size of an average French film. She wrote the story like a novel and formed a team of friends to shoot the script. In a way, she created her own rules and her own language for cinema and broke many rules in doing so. She made the films the way she felt, she never adapted stories and wrote all her films.
Agnes Varda was a feminist filmmaker since the beginning. She was particular about the point-of-view in her films and never altered the reality of her characters to suit the mainstream. For example, we experience Cleo 5 to 7 through its female protagonist, who waits for cancer reports. Vagabond, largely seen as a counterculture film, follows the journey of a girl on the road who was defined by the people she met. Varda wanted to depict freedom, saying "How do you behave when you have nothing? Where do you go? What do you do with your anger?"
Varda's fascination with documentary realism reflects in her filmography – The Gleaners & I (2002), The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Faces Places (2017). She would often juxtapose documentary footage even in her fictional features to depict the reality within the space of the character. Cleo 5 to 7(1962) has a series of long tracking shots of Cleo walking through the streets intercut with documentary footage of the people there.
She explains: "When you make fiction, you want an actor to do this or that. You are the master of your story. But when you do a documentary, the subject is more important than your position as the director. You are the service of the subject – you are not the big person. The form obliges you to modesty."
Agnes, through her films, became the voice of people from the margins, she told us of them in the most compassionate way. Her last film, Varda By Agnes, is autobiographical. It premiered at Berlin, but is yet to be released for the world to see.