New York Reviews

The Gleaners and I: Documentary film review

Between years 2003 and 2009, I lived in Granada, a town in the South of Spain of captivating beauty, history and energy. There, I met a group of wonderful women, great friends. We shared our love for films. In winter, we went to Granada 10, one of those independent movie theatres where you can sit on a sofa and have a beer while watching a movie. After dark, on weekend nights, Granada 10 was also a nightclub. I loved seeing that disco ball while enjoying a Wong Kar-wai or Fatih Akin movie. In summer, we went to the outdoor movies in Sacromonte, a neighborhood in front of the Alhambra palace. It was there, one summer, that I first watched the documentary film “The gleaners and I” (original title: “Les glaneurs et la glaneuse”), from French film director Agnès Varda.

Agnès Varda is considered one of the greatest creators of the women’s and feminist film industry. I have to confess this is (today) the only film of hers I have seen. However, her death in March 2019 and the various retrospectives of her life and work that year, made me remember fondly and with some nostalgia the documentary film, Granada, summer outdoor movies in Sacromonte and those great friends I so much miss in my day to day life. When we started HOLA TOMORROW, I knew I would write a review of this film in one of my posts.  

“The Gleaners and I” includes short interviews and stories, narrated by Varda, about gleaners, mainly men, that the film director encounters in France. It was released in year 2000, and it had a very positive reception, winning several awards. The film makes frequent references to paintings of gleaners, in this case mainly female gleaners, by Millet, Breton and other painters. Its soundtrack introduces hip-hop songs with lyrics that denounce social inequalities. The documentary film also shows Varda’s aging hands on multiple occasions, alluding to the passing of time. It also introduces various definitions of the verb “to glean”. It is Varda herself who narrates, films, and interviews various gleaners, engaging into personal, intimate and warm conversations. Her presence makes this documentary a beautiful story. 

What is “gleaning”? The film begins by defining this verb as “collecting after the harvest”. The gleaner is, therefore, the person who gleans. I associate the act of gleaning with wheat and other grains, with people who live in rural areas and with the past. The documentary film shows gleaners of potatoes, apples, tomatoes, grapes, bread, oysters and clams, refrigerators, furniture, in rural areas as well as in big cities. A man interviewed says: “Finish gleaning to avoid waste. […] This is the old spirit”. However, we see today’s gleaners everywhere, not only in rural villages. The documentary also questions the common association between gleaning and poverty, and presents gleaners that have chosen to glean based on principles, who are not in need of anything but glean because they like doing so. 

Some data shown in the film are terrible. A harvester shares that supermarkets request potatoes with a very specific shape and size. Those that do not meet the requirements, are not sold for consumption. He estimates that, in a harvest of more than 4,500 tons, around 25 tons are thrown away and wasted. Another person interviewed, who has a field of apples, shares that “This field has 3 hectares, and there are at least 10 tons of apples that we will not pick”. He adds: “I cannot prohibit people from coming and picking up apples once we have finished our collection”. I find it very interesting how the film also describes the conditions that make it legal to glean in France.  Julia’s HOLA TOMORROW’s post about Wabi-Sabi and the beauty of imperfection has some other statistics and reflections about food waste.  

The urban gleaners are my favorite characters in the film. Those who walk along trash bins and containers of supermarkets to find food. Sometimes it is food that expired just a couple of days ago. That person who finds his food in the farmers market after the market closes. That man who lives almost exclusively from what he finds in the trash, whose source of food has been the trash for the last 10 years and who has never been sick in this time. That artist who defines himself as a “trapero”, who collects objects that others do no longer want, for example plastic packaging, to be used in his art. Those two friends who collect refrigerators from the streets, repair them and sell them or gift them to neighbors who may need them. Varda also interviews chef Eduard Loubet, 2 Michelin stars, true gleaner, who tells us how in his restaurant they do not waste or throw away anything (he also gives some tips!). 

I would like to end with the words of French author, winemaker and psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, who is interviewed by Varda in this film: “What makes me special is having tried to introduce, in the essence of the human being, the others mainly in relation to one’s self; this is an anti-philosophy of the self, that shows how a human being finds her/his origin in others”.  

This documentary film is viewed by many, even if it did not seem to be Varda’s primary intention, as a resistance to consumerism, a questioning of authority, and a reflection of the relationship between our day to day actions and politics. For me, it is a reminder of the absurdity of waste and excess, of the need to give objects and materials things a long life, of the imperative for a better distribution of wealth and, above all, of the need to constantly question what wealth really is.  This is why I wanted to share this beautiful gem with the readers of HOLA TOMORROW. I encourage you to watch the documentary (available in different platforms in different countries – screening in Spain- and most probably in your neighborhood library) and to tell us if you like it as much as I do and, also, what is that you like to glean. Enjoy!  


Note: This documentary film was produced 20 years ago and some of the data and information may be outdated. However, the essence of the content, messages and reflections are still as current and relevant as they were in year 2000.


JUNCAL// New York


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