Nineteenth-Century peasants, a rubber-boot wearing bird lover, a magazine-pedaling teacher, French kids with dreadlocks, and a two-star chef—these are some of the culinary scavengers you’ll meet in Agnès Varda’s moving documentary, The Gleaners and I (2000).
A deceptively quiet film, The Gleaners and I gathers its momentum stealthily, opening with a look at a famous 1857 French oil painting of peasant women collecting stray stalks of wheat in a field after harvest, then moving to the modern-day scavengers of agribusiness leftovers, and on to urban dumpster-diving radicals and activists.
Demonstrating that the practice of gleaning—the collecting of scattered remnants left after a harvest—has long been supported by French law (a black-robed magistrate is shown reading from a legal text in a bed of cabbages), Varda carries out a nuanced study of the people, places, and political implications surrounding this time-honored act.
From vineyards that trample hundreds of pounds of leftover grapes in order to preserve the integrity of their vintages, to commercial farmers who dump “ugly” vegetables, and supermarkets that discard cheese one day past its labelled expiry date, the filmmaker also shows us how much food is routinely wasted and destroyed in a society where many still don’t have enough.
Collecting armfuls of heart-shaped potatoes from a vast pile of produce deemed too misshapen to appeal to consumers, Varda also becomes a gatherer of the many personal stories that make up this film.