Agnes Varda died earlier this year aged 90, leaving a wonderful legacy as a cinema personality and a documentary maker of rare compassion and insight. There was the expected outpouring of grief and praise at the news which, one suspects, she would have been both touched and amused by. There was a feeling of the passing of the old guard, because Varda goes right back to the formation of the celebrated New Wave and the golden age of French Cinema. She made a film before both Jean Luc Godard and François Truffaut morphed from film writers to the auteur status they helped to define. Varda was also married for years to Jacques Demy, another key figure in cinema, and her son Mathieu went on to be an actor and filmmaker.
She survived into a less political and activist age, but she kept her unswerving left politics and feistiness into old age. She was always there at the right time somehow and she felt the pulse of political change. See, for example, her very neutrally-shot doco Black Panthers (1968) in which she (or, as it were, her camera) attends a black power rally in the 1960s. That movement, with input from Eldridge Cleaver and Huey B Newtown, was literally history in the making and Varda’s short captures it all for posterity. [see below for review].
With her instantly recognisable pudding bowl haircut and her impish humour, she had a personal style all her own. And she was always curious about the lives of ordinary people and the way that they were the backbone of her beloved France. Only a year or so ago she made Faces, Places (2017) in which she combined with young muralist JR as they toured rural locations. She wanted to capture aspects of the countryside that were passing but the film is so much more than a lament. Varda always felt that people’s character was the most interesting subject and she had a keen eye for the way in which faces express lived experience.
She was also a feminist, and in that sense realised that the personal is always the political. Being quintessentially French, she could sometimes go off on philosophical flights of fantasy where she seemed to let the wafting skeins of language leave common sense behind. If one stopped to think, one could not be sure if some of the musings were profound or just a little pretentious but, as implied above, that was a charming fault.
She put her own life on film and used her reflective way of thinking to link her own struggles to the passage of time and the changing zeitgeist. This approach is beautifully exemplified by one of her most popular documentaries The Gleaners and I (2000) which looks at the people who have been flung to the periphery of capitalist society and who eke out a living on the margins. Varda brings them into the spotlight with a candour and compassion that is deeply humanist and affecting. The same could be said about Vagabond (1985), her unflinching portrait of a young free-spirited woman who has suffered trauma but is still exploring wherever life will take her (the role played with great commitment by the young Sandrine Bonnaire). The film is a drama but occupies that strange space between fact and fiction, drama and documentary, which Varda could do better than almost anyone. Varda’s was a unique voice.
There is perhaps still a halo of glamour around the revolutionary and Maoist Black Panthers party/political movement which has remained frozen but undiminished by the passage of time. (Sadly too, the oppression they opposed is still with us.) With their penchant for black leather jackets, black berets and dark glasses, they established an important style and a visible niche in the emergent black power movement. In a way, they were the epitome of what journalist Tom Wolfe called radical chic.
Despite macho elements, the movement was actually advanced in its gender politics for the time; the women were allowed to train alongside the men and the sisters had their own contribution to make by adopting the ‘fro hairstyle and insisting that ‘black is beautiful.’
The action here takes place in Oakland California in the mind 1960s. At this time, one of its founders Huey B Newton provided a focal point by being jailed for his part in a shootout in which (white) police officers died. ‘Free Huey’ soon became a unifying rallying cry.
This half hour doco is pretty flatly filmed. It shows Varda still cutting her teeth as a documentary maker. The sound is ropey and the camera work not exactly smooth, but she does manage to capture naturalistic glimpses by prowling around the scenes. She also gets short interview comments from some of the protagonists such as Eldridge Cleaver as well as Newton himself. Varda (who never appears in the film) deliberately doesn’t editorialise. This choice is a good one given the time and mood, but it also leaves the film strangely one-sided and un-nuanced in some ways. Maybe that doesn’t matter considering the importance of what was coming into being.
Much of the interest and energy comes from the topic itself and the retrospective understanding of the symbolic (and enduring) importance of this movement that history has conferred. Otherwise it is just a film of a rally.
ACMI is screening a season of Varda films under the banner of Viva Varda from June 21, 2019. Sydney Film Festival is screening Black Panthers, Daguerréotypes, Varda By Agnes, Jane B. Par Agnès V., The Beaches of Agnes, Documenteur, The Gleaners and I, Cleo from 5 to 7, and Lions Love (… and Lies).