Consumerism and politics of waste
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-05-08 07:50

Consumerism and politics of waste

Documentary films have never been in fashion. But for almost 90 years, committed documentary filmmakers have been enriching the language of cinema.

One such artist is Agnes Varda, whose The Gleaners and I, I had the good fortune of watching a few days ago. I had waited more than eight years to see the film, and had some idea about it. But what hit me instead was a bolt of lightning.

Critics have talked about the film's metaphors and serendipitous insights, about its inherent poetry, about people who glean or collect the "remnants of a harvest", about Varda's passion as a filmmaker and her concern for the marginalized people, about how the poor and destitute survive by picking bits and pieces of life from farms, markets and supermarkets.

But most of them seem to have failed to see the film as a political critique of waste. They've not realized the self-reflexive filmmaker-gleaner invites questions on marginalization, waste and the critical potential of a work of art in the age of consumption.

In today's world, we glean information, details or knowledge. We no longer glean grains, vegetables and fruits. The reason for that is simple: we are removed from the land and the process of production. Varda realizes this tragedy, and leads us first to a Jean-Francois Millet painting, The Gleaners, created in the mid-19th century, and then through Jules Breton's Calling in the Gleaners and The Gleaner, works that are well known.

But her journey through France is not an academic exercise in the history of art. She uses Millet's and Breton's works to guide us to modern-day gleaners. She travels to vegetable farms, vineyards, orchards, street dumps, markets, supermarkets, and museums across France. She takes us to a descendent of Etiene-Jules Marey, a pioneer of photography and an influential figure in cinema, who owns a vineyard and allows gleaners to pick grapes left after harvesting. She introduces us to a couple who run a caf, and the wife says how she enjoyed gleaning on the farms as a child. The filmmaker strikes a friendship with Alain F., an M.Sc in biology, a vegetarian, newspaper seller and teacher, who stays in a government shelter, teaches immigrants from Mali and Senegal how to read and write, and gleans the markets for food.

Consumerism and politics of waste

Though Alain is the film's most symbolic character, its most striking remark comes from a Parisian, Francois, who has a job, a social security number and draws a salary but still eats what he collects from garbage dumps. "Salvaging is a matter of ethics for me," he says. "All these idiots dump away; I come after them and rake in the chips."

Lest you think this is a review of the film, here is just one example of what it teaches us about waste. Varda travels to a farm to be told by one of the managers that up to 25 tons of potatoes are dumped as waste after every harvest in the region. Now, how many people they could feed? Agricultural production has risen by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, but so has hunger and starvation. And how do we react: by dumping food supermarkets consider not "good enough" for their shelves.

Varda holds a mirror to today's consumerist society when she gleans a rarely talked about painting from the "dump" of a museum: Pierre Edmond Hedouin's Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm. As the curator and her assistant hold the painting out in the open, a strong wind starts blowing, reminding us that everything our moribund capitalist society considers "not good" has been - or will be - blown away from our midst. Things can be good enough for us only when some supermarkets or neo-aestheticians put their stamp on it.

Varda shows us the inherent faults with such a lifestyle.

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com