Gleaning: Wasteland & The Gleaners and I

I’ve been doing some end-of-the-year thinking about Tidings of Magpies. Always making connections. Connections between the work that we’ve shared and connections with the very act of sharing. And the same word keeps presenting itself to me like a persistent ghost: gleaning. And that brought to mind these two films, both beautiful and thoughtful, both asking resonating questions.

Waste Land, a film by Lucy Walker, is engrossing, disturbing, inspiring and hopeful, all at the same time. It tells the story of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s lengthy project of making portraits of catadores, garbage pickers at the Jardim Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro. The landfill itself is massive and horrifying, and the jobs of the pickers – sorting through mountains of garbage to collect recyclables – seems too awful to imagine. Yet they are cheerful, even happy, and they’ve created a supportive community for each other. Muniz makes a series of portraits of catadores in poses borrowed from famous paintings, and he uses the recyclable materials from the landfill as his medium. The catadores themselves help him to make the portraits, and they travel with him to sell them at the most prestigious auction house in London. They’re bright and brilliant and engaged in the creative process as a way to escape the garbage or a way to look at it in a different light.

Walker says, “Just as Vik wants the portraits to serve as a mirror in which the catadores may see themselves, so I hope the movie serves as a means for us to see our journey to becoming involved with people so far from ourselves. To zoom all the way in to caring about someone who was previously as far away as it’s possible to be. Questions poke through the fabric of the movie as things get messy. In Waste Land, Vik and his wife start to argue on camera about whether the project is hurting the catadores by taking them out of their environment and then, when it’s over, expecting them to return.” For me, the very fact that the director speaks of the subjects of the film in terms of distance, that she creates an “Us and Them” scenario is disturbing as well. Uncomfortable, to say the least. It is among the many questions the film raises, impossible to answer, important to ask.

Agnes Varda is more engaged with her subjects in her documentary The Gleaners and I. Varda, who is wonderfully curious and warm-hearted, sees herself as akin to the gleaners she portrays. In rural France, gleaners follow after the harvest has been collected, to pick the fruit that was left behind. Varda also shows people who find food and other treasures in vineyards, fields, and urban markets. Some live on the food and money they make from the objects they find. Some turn them into art. The film is a history of gleaning, a portrait of gleaners, a meditation on aging, a subtle examination of the artist as a gleaner, of the documentarian as a person who collects treasures from the world around her. Like all of Varda’s films, The Gleaners and I glows with warmth and generosity as it makes us think about time passing, about memory, and about human connection both personal and political, intimate and societal.

Both films are about excess and waste, beauty and love. They are about the strength and fragility of people – in body and spirit. Both films find art and the creative process, if not as necessary as food, at least as valuable in its own way. In both films, many of the people we meet have been living in this way, literally on the outskirts of society, since childhood, even for generations. Both films are vibrantly shot: bright and energetic, but both films are also permeated with an atmosphere of mortality and decay.

The stories of the catadores and the gleaners remind us that life is fragile, and our position in society is more so. In this country we talk about a “safety net,” which seems to have failed many of these people completely. And yet they’ve built their own community to protect each other, and care for each other, to feed each other – they’ve built libraries and learning centers. Aunt Irma has set up huge pots in Jardim Gramacho, and she cooks for the pickers, using food thrown away by grocery stores and restaurants, brought to her as fresh as possible. She seems so happy with her life, and her role of feeding her friends. Just as weeds and wildflowers will grow and create sustaining systems of life in spaces that humans have ruined, humans themselves will also find a way to connect and survive, despite the waste and destruction wrought by their fellow travelers on the earth.

It’s important to me not to waste anything: not food, not inspiration, or stories, or moments of connection. But perhaps most importantly of all it’s important to me not to waste time. Michel Navratil, the last survivor of the Titanic, was two years old when the ship sank. “I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure, really, of going plop! into the life-boat. We ended up next to the daughter of an American banker who managed to save her dog–no one objected. There were vast differences of people’s wealth on the ship, and I realized later that if we hadn’t been in second-class, we’d have died.” Michel and his brother were eventually discovered by their mother and taken back to France (on a boat!) His brother died aged 43 in 1953. Michel became a professor of philosophy, and he lived to be 92 years old. But he says, “I died at 4. Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.” A gleaner of time.

The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet

7 replies »

  1. Gleaning is the gathering of treasures ignored by others, a precious yet undervalued role. There is also a modern necessity for the circular economy and the avoidance of wasting finite resources. And in matters of the mind, we often glean very different things from the same situation, the same work of art. I like the similarity to happenstance and serendipity – the delight of the unexpected discovery of small things. And your Millais reminds me that Van Gogh chose that picture for an interpretation of his own. He gleaned it…

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