Créteil Film de Femmes – ‘Au revoir’ Agnès Varda – Moira Sullivan comments

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The Palmarès (awards) for the 41st Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in Paris were introduced by a short film made in 1967 in San Francisco by Agnès Varda who looked up a Greek uncle in Sausalito – “Uncle Yanco”. Agnès Varda died earlier in the morning on March 29 surrounded by family. Though she had been ill she was still working on a photo exhibition and two installations – as she liked to say, the inspiration “hasn’t stopped”. Director Jackie Buet and Programmer Norma Guevara saluted this extraordinary filmmaker who was the guest of the festival during several editions and announced a screening of a 90-minute “Leçons du Cinéma” (Lessons in Cinema) made with Varda in 1998 on the final day. In this exquisite document, Varda speaks uninterrupted on film and art sitting in a leather chair with a footrest dressed in a crimson jacket and crimson pants. No questions, no agendas, only her thoughts. What a powerful way to honor her with this intimate meeting.

I first learned the news about Agnès Varda in the Créteil daily newsletter – “What’s Up” before the abundance of tributes everywhere today in Paris and on the internet. In commemorating her work, it is important to point out that she has been incorrectly placed within the realm of the French New Wave, a film style that developed with film critics at “Cahiers du Cinéma” such as Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. In fact, she preceded the New Wave, a filmmaker and photographer in her own right. “La Point Court” was made in 1955 five years before “À bout de souffle” (Breathless) considered the inaugural New Wave film. Colleagues working in the New Wave were “my friends – that is all …I never signed any papers in any group or any party”. Her innovations in cinema language were hers, her choice of subject, storytelling, focus on detail, personal use of the camera, presence on screen.

Varda meant so much to the world of” femmemakers” – women who make film, photography, installations, Instagrams (“I want to erase borders”). Just last May she read up the protest of 82 women in film on the steps of the Palais at Cannes for the historical exclusion of female authors in the official selection. She liked to say that she was given a lion and a bear, an honorary palm leaf and a “poor Oscar” from film festivals and pageants but no money to make films. I was fortunate to meet her at the Venice Film Festival in 2015 where she screened her short film “3 Buttons”. She put herself in her best light for a photograph. ( She was happy to be given money by the Italian fashion brand “Miu Miu” to make a film with free hands while profiling one of their dresses. Her plays on words and visual puns make this an enchanting film, ripe with all the techniques that Varda is known for including the use of non-actors and authentic environments. She asked if I did something else and told her I taught a class on women and film at City College of San Francisco where I screen her films. She loved San Francisco. Two short films were made there: “Uncle Yanco” screened at the Palmarès and “Black Panthers”. “Uncle Yanco” includes iconic shots of San Francisco, the Golden Gate and Sausalito. She is looking for a Greek relative and the local townspeople are all involved in the search. She finds him on a houseboat, and she walks towards him beaming with a huge smile dressed in purple slacks and pullover. Her choice of colors and unique are always noteworthy.

The second short is an illustration of the politics of the Black Panthers and their revolutionary ideas that challenged “mind and body theory” – the historical separation of the black mind from the body. Varda emphasized that for the first time, black Americans were writing their own history instead of whites. She traveled four weekends from Los Angeles to San Francisco to attend Panther rallies while living with her husband Jacques Demy, her daughter Rosalie and her daughter’s dog “Little Princess”. She particularly emphasized that the last two members of her family were with her. Varda always reinforced what was true for her. Rosalie went on to form the production company “Ciné Tamaris” for her mother. Varda’s friend Tom Luddy, a student programmer at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, urged her to come to San Francisco because of what was happening with the Panthers. She hadn’t studied about them before, as claimed by film critics and focused on the support the Panthers were providing for the black community including a school lunch program that today is still running in Oakland. It is clear that she had an eye on the women in the such as Kathleen Cleaver, currently a professor of law at Emory University in Georgia and at the time the wife of the late Eldridge Cleaver. There are many shots of the women singing, speaking, dancing, protesting.

Varda was not only interested in the history of blacks written by blacks but of women written by women whose minds have also been historically separated from their bodies. She recognized the power of women writing their own history in the 1960’s in opposition to following the rhetoric of the male left dominated by Marxist Leninism and later Maoism. She thought her film would be testimony to the importance of self-determination. Varda came to Oakland with French journalists and shot her film with a 16mm camera. The Panthers gave her full access to the party platform and meetings. To her dismay, her documentary was not aired on French television for in May ‘68 TV executives said that it would anger the students involved in national protests. It was obviously not screened in the US because of the antagonistic relationship the Panthers had with the government. In the completed film the English voiceover was done by Varda’s friend, a philosophy teacher, and in France -Varda.

I usually screen “The Gleaners” (2000) on the waste of useful and beneficial resources in society such as oversized vegetables or produce from stores with shelf life remaining, and as Varda liked to point out, the discard of the elderly. Varda appears in the film interacting with the gleaners she meets. The expedient discard is prevalent in several other films. Lost buttons are useful in “3 Buttons” (2016) for they can nurture a budding flower. A button collector has a shop on her street, rue Daguerre. He places lost buttons into tiny matchboxes with dates and places where they are found. “Faces Places” (2017) has the same magical feel where she and street artist JR go on a road trip in a van with a photobooth snapping people who may not be heroes in real life, but whose work is heroic. Photographs of cargo ship office clerks or residents of a housing area that has become a ghost town are blown up and plastered onto gigantic edifices. In “Jane B.” (1989) actress Jane Birkin and the mise en scène are arranged in a series of historical and contemporary tableaux. Jane at times is afraid of the camera, the mirror, under the watchful eye of Agnès’ (“which is me”…never mind if I appear in the background or in the camera”…I turn the mirror”). In “Cléo from 5 to 7”, Varda’s editing separates the mirror of whimsical and narcissistic pop singer Cléo (“Wait pretty butterfly, ugliness is a kind of death”) to the Cléo in evolution, transforming within the kaleidoscopic mirror of time and space.

Varda operated an uncanny camera and the subjects she chose to film and later assemble through editing are endowed with magic. I could not help to think of how pleased she would have been with the Grand Jury Prize winner at Créteil this year from Mexico set in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro – “La Vida caotica de Nada Kadic” (The Chaotic life of Nada Kadic) ( directed by Marta Hernaiz Pidal and co-written by Aida Hadžibegović, also the lead actress. A single mother embarks on a roadtrip with her autistic daughter. The provocative visual details and ruminations of the camera evoke Varda’s work and it is exciting to know that women will continue making films in a creative and free spirit. Through the years, Agnès Varda has won the heart of Créteil who gave her a fond farewell and her films, photography and installations remain to inspire new generations of women.

Moira Sullivan

Créteil March 30, 2019

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Moira Sullivan

Moira Sullivan is an international film critic, scholar, lecturer, promoter and experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. She is a member of FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) and has a PhD in cinema studies. Sullivan is one of the world's experts on the work of the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961). A native of San Francisco, Sullivan wrote her doctoral thesis and subsequent publication on Maya Deren's avantgarde and ethnographic filmmaking. Sullivan has been invited to special universities and art schools honoring Maya Deren in Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and the USA. Since 1995 Sullivan has been a staff writer for Movie Magazine International, San Francisco and does weekly radio reports on film reviews, film events and festivals. She also writes from named for Agnès Varda.