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Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda

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French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

Agnès Varda in Manhattan

Born in Belgium in 1928 with a career spanning over 60 years, Agnès Varda’s work continues to reexamine and challenge the themes of time, memory, and reinventing reality.

Often referred to as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, noting that Goddard and some of the other Cahier du  Cinema group were close in age yet differed in their political views and artistic backgrounds), Varda’s film credits include La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962),  The Creatures (Les Créatures 1966), Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

At the ‘Life as Art’ event in March at the Alliance Français in New York City, moderated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, organizer of her exhibit at Manhattan’s Blum and Poe Gallery, Agnès Varda spoke about the pieces in this show, as well as her narrative and documentary work while film clips and images from past multi-media installations were shown. Varda expressed reverence and curiosity for the subject matter and interviewees, and her responses were as wide-ranging as the work itself.

Varda: “With ‘Uncle Yanco’ (1967), I was interested to transmit not only the facts but how I felt about meeting him, like having the camera shake to show my excitement” — [to ‘The Gleaners and I,’ (2000)] When you film, the weather is always changing; the people are in a certain mood or do a movement you don’t expect. It’s an adventure. You can organize more or less before, and then the adventure is the time that you film, a vérité. And then the editing, I’m very excited about because that’s where you build the story.”

Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery

Open until April 15th, this is Varda’s first time exhibiting in New York City. Highlighting works made from 1949 to the present, this exhibit includes video installations, photographs, and sculpture. In Paris in 1954, Varda staged her first exhibition of eighteen black & white mounted photographs at her house in which she still lives and works today.

Varda led the press gathering as we walked together throughout the gallery rooms. Irreverent, inspiring, and disarming, Varda often shared her insights with a sense of comedic timing when discussing her work and journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Varda: “I used to put away my life as a photographer and now it comes in the light again.”

Varda points to the framed original invitation she made for the exhibit:

Varda: “The invitation explains the first time I exhibited in my own courtyard. The photographs were hung on the wall, on the shutters, on the ladders and around my studio. I printed the photographs myself and someone helped me to put it on the wood. I left the photographs up even at night because it was my own courtyard. There was no reason to make any kind of announcement so I put the invitation up in my neighborhood; at the bakery, at the butcher, and about 20 shops nearby, which is interesting because years later I made the documentary Daguerréotypes about my neighbors in 1975.”

Following the FIAF screening of Daguerreotypes, moderator Laurence Kardish and Varda discussed the evolution of the film from idea to production.

Varda: “I went to all the shopkeepers and asked if they would come to the café for the show. I was surprised they all came. We took two cameras. I said to the other DP (because you know the show at almost three hours is endless) let’s see what the people do. There is no fiction at all; the magic show happened, and what we filmed in their houses and at the shops were all true. The shopkeepers were concerned about how I was going to pay for the light so I ran a cable from my house and we used my electricity to film. The DP and I were small. We were hiding in corners of the shops. We kept the light on so there was no difference when people came in; we wanted to see them arrive. The crew was one sound person, and one to help, two camera people. We waited for hours to film because we had to be forgotten by the shopkeepers.”

As Varda walks around the Blum and Poe gallery, she offers glimpses into her past and present, while recounting some back stories of the images.

Varda: “I am switching from an old filmmaker to a young visual artist. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist. I’m old. So I’ve been crossing the time for years.”

La cabane du film Le Bonheur

La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnes:  Varda, 2017 Metal structure with Super 8 film from Le Bonheur (1964), miniature potted sunflowers, interior lighting with switch, and mixed media on wooden base. Polished cherry wood case with engraved plaque and handle.

Varda: “We had all these negatives in the film cans.  I wondered if there was a way to recycle all these negatives. So I thought, let’s make it a house of cinema, and make these shacks. Since it’s expensive to do the big ones (life-size), I did these maquettes. For this piece, I re-filmed Le Bonheur in Super 8 because to make the mini house, it had to be true to the original film.” (Varda hands me the magnifying glass to further examine the Super-8 images.) “If you take a look, there are the images of the original film. In Le Bonheur the film starts with a lot of sunflowers, so I imagined a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers.”

bord de mer

Bord de mer (2009). Digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand. Total running time: 1 minute, looped.96 x 120 x 115 inches

In this piece, Varda explores three representations of time; the one still photograph is of the ocean; the moving image shows a wave rolling in and out of the shoreline; and on the gallery floor lies a small beach of sand at the edge of the video.

I asked Varda about her decision to use real sand on the floor for this installation.

Varda: “I wanted the viewer to forget about the floor and just be there.  I wanted something realistic. I did another big installation Patatutopia and there were potatoes on the floor. Because a little piece of reality helps the imagination.”

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012

A photograph of five figures and a baby on the Le Corbusier’s terrace next to a video re-enactment of what might have preceded the moment the photograph was taken. Varda describes the scene as a before and after. The before (the video) and the after (the photograph).

Varda: “I was sent by a magazine to photograph the Corbusier. I liked the mise en scène. A lot of snapshots for me are questions. Because it was a mystery I decided to make it a screenplay: I asked, who could be those people? So those people became characters. I built the set, and I asked some people to come. (Varda points to the video.) This couple in my mind is the mother and father of the girl, and this one is the mother of the boy. (Varda chuckles) Then like in real families they kiss on both cheeks for hours.”

TRIPTICH

Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, 2004-2005 35mm film transferred to three-channel color/sound video, three wooden screens, hinges. Total running time: 9 minutes 30 seconds, looped. 39 x 180 x 1 inches open; 29 x 129 x 2 1/2 inches closed.

This interactive work allows the viewer to open and close the side panels thereby influencing the unfolding narrative.

Varda: “I’m asking the viewer for 10 minutes of their time, which is nothing. The feeling comes if you give yourself time to think because there is almost no action.  I love that in a film it brings a lot of people together but a triptych in a gallery or a piece in a gallery brings in a few people. They come, they go. I like the during, the after, the before, and the elsewhere all at the same time. This makes it different from film.

I was inspired by the religious triptychs of the 15th century. I love the triptych shape; the opening and the closing of the panels.  We can see three things at the same time; something we cannot do in a film.  I was very excited to see where the people go when they go out of the scene.”

Pointing to the central projection of the domestic kitchen scene Varda says: “For about five minutes it’s just a classical kitchen scene like a Flemish painting of the 17th century.”  (She then points to the left panel and then center panel.) “When the man goes out, the mother puts away things. It’s intimate and also outside; sometimes we feel this at the same time, inside and outside.”

I asked Varda the identities of the three people in the film.

Varda: “They are my neighbors; he is a plumber, and the old lady is his mother. It’s in a little village island of Noirmoutier. I’ve always loved working with non-actors that I meet here and there.

Kouguell: How much direction did you give them?

Varda: I don’t say, ‘Drink your beer like this’ I say, ‘We’re going to do a very intimate kitchen scene’.  We discussed how long the film will be.  I suggested what they did and then they did it according to their own impressions. The kitchen scene is one shot; that was the intention. The relation to the side panels we had to organize.

The lady is the mother of the man, and the woman is his wife. He reads the paper and drinks a beer. Like very often it happens in life. And the women do the work. The lady undoes the rope and the wife does the potatoes.

Varda refers to the images of the beach on the left panel: “My mind started to think, what could happen if I could bring some of the outside inside? Then I allowed myself to have the immensity of the sea.”

Kouguell: This piece happens with no dialogue and just the sound of the ocean; it is very meditative.

Varda: I love the quiet noise of the sea. My mind is always at the sea. I’m inspired by the sea. (Varda points to the action of the woman pushing the cat off the table): “The woman doesn’t like the cat and he doesn’t like the sea.” (Varda smiles) “Voilà, that’s all you can say about their relationship.”

Kouguell:  It speaks volumes about their relationship. And, it’s interesting with the images of the two women, the wife and mother, on the far panels.

Varda: Yes. I kept it blank in the middle for a little while. (We watch together until the panel changes.) And then the film starts again. 

VISAGES, VILLAGES

Varda: “The artist JR and I just finished the documentary Visages/Villages; it will open in June in France. We got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul. Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years I like taking the time to listen to people. The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

 

Final Words

Varda: “I fought a lot as a feminist, and we succeeded with a lot of marching and screaming and we changed the law. Birth control was an incredible step in society. I’m still a feminist more than ever. In the cinema world in France today, there are a lot of women directors, writers, DPs, mixers, producers. It’s a fight I did when I started making films. I say to women, learn the camera, learn the sound and editing. When I was young it was rare to have a camera. Now people do photos all the time. When they do selfies, they want to put themselves in it to say they were there. As if to say, I need proof in my life. Not only are images easier to make now, but we want to have memories of ourselves.

The documentary I did about widows (The Widows of Noirmoutier The Veuves de Noirmoutier 2005) I went alone with a small camera and sound. The women were very touching the way they spoke to me with their small confidences. I listened to them. It’s a step in understanding the world.  The world is cruel.  But I have decided, especially aging, to try and spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. I have seen the world changing so much since I have been here.

You can use your memory to remember, but that’s not my point in my work now.  The point is, getting a piece of my past and bringing it in my life of today. I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories, (she smiles) but I did it a little in The Beaches of Agnes. What I do now is make it alive now. What I want is to make the now and here very important.  It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose emotion, propose surprises, and propose my view.  That’s the life of the artist.”

Agnès Varda Salute

The Actualities of Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

by Susan Kouguell

 

Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

In a salute to Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Art of the Real, Documentary Redefined Series in New York City, Varda’s short films and features were included in the Actualities of Agnès Varda program, featuring the acclaimed filmmaker in person.

I had the honor of speaking with Agnès Varda at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival at two separate events, which I covered for this publication:Conversation with Varda: HERE and Highlights from the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class : HERE

Speaking before and after each of the following short films, Agnès Varda is ever the powerful and poignant storyteller with a provocative sense of humor.

 

“Black Panthers” (1968, 31 minutes)

"Black Panthers"
“Black Panthers”

Centering on a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland California in 1968, Varda discussed her experience filming this short documentary.

Varda: “Tom Luddy told me I should come to Oakland because of these demonstrations. Every Saturday I flew from Los Angeles to be there. I had a 16mm camera. I shot a lot of it alone; and I had some help from some others. I needed to get their speeches. I needed to understand the mind body theory. So far, the theory of black men was written by white men. This was the first time they were really involved in their own history. I remember thinking about the women, and also for the first time in the sixties women were writing about their history. I was fascinated by the equivalence. It was a precise time in 1968; two years later it was almost gone. It was so important at the time; I thought and everyone thought it would change the history of black people. The documentary bore witness, the testimony of that time of the Black Panthers. The film was not shown in France; they were afraid to wake students. It was not shown in the U.S. then either.”

“I bore witness. I was discreet as much as possible. It belongs to their history. Each time there is a film about Black history, we are asked about it.”

Susan Kouguell and Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Susan Kouguell and Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

 

Susan’s: Highlights from the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class with Award-winning Director Agnès Varda

Agnes Varda with Stefano Knuchel at the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class

Agnès Varda

Stefano Knuchel, Head of the Locarno Film Summer Academy, invited me to sit in on his master class with the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival’s    Pardo d’onore Swisscom winner French film director Agnès Varda.

Known as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, as I cite in my Conversation with Varda).Varda’s film credits include     “La Pointe Courte”     (1955),     “Cleo from 5 to 7” (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962), “The Creatures” (Les Créatures 1966), “Lions Love (…and Lies)” (1969), “Documenteur” (1981),”Vagabond“(Sans toit ni loi, 1985), “The Gleaners and I” (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and ”   The Beaches of Agnès” (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

Speaking to the group of international students, Varda shared her passion for cinema, photography, and installation work, with humor and honesty. Here are    some highlights from Varda’s talk.

I asked Varda about finding inspiration and her writing process

I don’t search for ideas; I find them. They come to me or I have none. I would not sit at a table and think now I have to find ideas. I    wait until something disturbs me enough, like a relationship I heard about, and then it becomes so important I have to write the screenplay.

I never wrote with someone else or directed together. I wouldn’t like that. I never worked with (her late husband, director Jacques) Demy. We would show    screenplays to each other when we were finished.

When you are a filmmaker, you are a filmmaker all the time. Your mind is recording impressions, moods. You are fed with that. Inspiration is getting    connections with the surprises that you see in life. Suddenly it enters in your world and it remains; you have to let it go and work on it. It’s    contradictory.

Question from Student: How did you manage to navigate a male-dominated film world?

First, stop saying it’s a male world. It’s true, but it helps not to repeat it. When I started in film, I did a new language of cinema, not as a woman, but    as a filmmaker. It is still a male world, as long women are not making the same salary as men.

Put yourself in a situation where you want to make films; whether you are woman or not a woman, give yourself the tools: maybe you    intern, maybe you go to school, or read books. Get the tools.

On Filmmaking

We have to capture in film what we don’t know about.

If you don’t have a point-of-view it’s not worth starting to make a film.

Whatever we do in film is searching. If you meet somebody, you establish yourself, who you want to meet, what kind of relationship it is. Our whole life is    made up of back and forth, decisions, options — and then they don’t fit.

When one is filming we should be fragile; listen to that something in ourselves. The act of filming for me is so vivid, it includes what you had in mind,    and includes what is happening around you at that moment — how you felt, if you have headache, and so on. A film builds itself with what you don’t know.

Life interferes. You have friends. Kids. No kids. Then there is a leak on the wall. Everything interferes. It’s how you build the life with others.

Sometimes I go by myself to do location scouting. When I go by myself, something speaks to me in a place I’ve chosen and I know maybe we should take    advantage of that. We have to be working with chance. ‘Chance’ is my assistant director.

TO READ MORE:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/highlights-from-the-locarno-film-summer-academy-master-class-with-award-winning-director-agnes-varda-20140930

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SUSAN’S: Writing a Documentary Film With No Rules (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

 

SCRIPT MAGAZINE ARTICLE

Writing a documentary… Want to learn how? Register for Susan’s upcoming Screenwriters University class, starting August 28, 2014.

There is no “right or wrong” way  when it comes to writing a documentary film. Sounds easy then, right? Well–wrong! While there are no set screenwriting rules for writing a documentary script, it can still be challenging to convey a specific subject matter and its characters succinctly.

Writing a Documentary Film

This nonfiction genre can be written, using the traditional 3-Act structure, as seen in fiction films or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, reenactments, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are just some examples of the tools used to convey the story when writing a documentary. Whether you choose to present your ideas objectively or subjectively, the execution and clarity of your material is important to the success of your project.

Agnes Varda Writing a Documentary

Agnes Varda

Writing a documentary can challenge traditional narrative conventions as seen in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film Manakamana. A documentary can portray, for example, social or political issues (Louis Malle’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, God’s Country; Joe Berlinger’s Crude, and Michael Moore’s Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11), a musical concert (Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock), a “making of a film” (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo), or follow the lives of a person or persons over a period of time, such as Michael Apted’s series of films 28 Up (1984), or tell autobiographical stories in a unique and revealing way, such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” says Varda at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival where I asked her about her process of writing a documentary. Varda describes her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “InThe Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

In a documentary, characters give a face to the story you’re telling. A character can not only be human but an animal, an object, a location, or the filmmaker can choose to be a character in his or her film. The audience should feel empathy for the people you are portraying – whether it’s love or hate, viewers must feel something and care what’s going to happen to them. If the subject matter of your project does not involve people, films can show characters directly or indirectly relating to the subject matter.

To read more:

http://www.scriptmag.com/features/writing-a-documentary-film

SUSAN’S CONVERSATION WITH AGNES VARDA

 

The Conversation with Agnes Varda moderated by film critic and historian Jean Michel Frodon took place at the Locarno International Film Festival on 12    August. The rain clouds cleared just as Ms. Varda took the outdoor stage. Speaking about her career in photography, filmmaking and as an installation    artist, Varda offered honest insights about being categorized both as a female filmmaker and part of the New Wave, as well as anecdotes and words of wisdom    about her past and present work.

Frodon: There was an important event in the history of world cinema — the New Wave. Just before the official opening of the Locarno Festival we screened    “The 400 Blows,” but actually you started the New Wave with your film La Point Courte,” which was quite original, stunning, and unlike all the    others. You were no film buff, you were a woman, not a cinephile and being a woman with quite unique characteristics.

        
             “La Point Courte”

Varda:    I’m troubled with the term “New Wave”. The New Wave included a number of young, new filmmakers but to me, there was the group the Cahiers du Cinema critics    who loved American films, among them Truffaut. And like me, not knowing anything about filmmaking, were Jacques Demy, Chris Marker, and me. We were farther    to the left than the others. These people were grouped in the same category as if we were a group. I felt different from the Cahiers du Cinema movement. I    had no knowledge of French and American cinema, and I thought structure was more important than the way the films were shot.

My references were not from film. For example: When people would put their hands on their knees, I called that an “Egyptian shot,” or I would say, “Face”     rather than “close up.” I knew nothing about film jargon.

I asked Varda to expand on her feelings about being labeled as a ‘woman’ director.

Varda:    That hasn’t to do with feminism it is about what I could do with cinécriture (writing on film), — the idea I had for cinema. My life as a feminist is more related to facts; fighting for contraception and people who fight for abortion rights. I have been there with women on these battles. In my film    “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1978) it was a time when women wouldn’t dare to speak about their problems. It was better for a while but today    again it’s not so good with abortion clinics closing, and so on. I fight for that. To make a statement about that. I don’t oblige myself to make feminist    films because it’s complex. I cannot make a propaganda film because cinema is more interesting. I would never film something degrading. You can speak about    rape, but you cannot film it. It’s very difficult what you can show — the body of a woman, the body of a man. I give a precise point of view with extreme    intensity but it cannot be made

To read more:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/conversation-with-agnes-varda-20140818

 

 

 

 

Susan Interviews Stefano Knuchel Head of Locarno Summer Academy

 

I met with Stefano Knuchel, Head of the Summer Academy, the afternoon before the Academy and Film Festival began. Now in his second    year in this position, Mr. Knuchel is enthusiastic about the students’ talents and the exciting opportunities that await them at the Academy.

Knuchel: “Every continent except for Australia has been represented so far at the Academy. The shape and tradition of the Academy is mixing life with    cinema.” Knuchel continues, “The program gives students a sense to be a well-rounded director. It’s difficult to be yourself and in moviemaking …what does    it mean to be yourself?” Knuchel smiles, “You film who you are.”

An important goal of the Academy is the exchange of ideas and experiences not only with the filmmakers offering master classes, including Agnes Varda,    Roman Polanski and Victor Erice, but also between the students themselves.

Knuchel: “The students’ gain not only knowledge but an exchange with other filmmakers at their level; some of the students from last year are now making    movies together.”

To read more:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/susan-kouguell-interviews-stefano-knuchel-head-of-locarno-summer-academy-20140807

SUSAN’S INTERVIEW WITH LOCARNO FILM FEST ARTISTIC DIRECTOR CARLO CHATRIAN

Just steps from the outdoor screen and the 8,000 seats that have been set up on the Piazza Grande where the 67th Locarno International Film    Festival will open on 6 August, I sat down with Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian to talk about films of the past and present, the American independent film    line-up, Roman Polanski and Agnès Varda.

The Festival

        

Kouguell: This is your second year as Artistic Director. What changes will we see at the Festival this year?

Chatrian:     “Last year, I didn’t want to change the Festival that much because I felt, and still feel, that the structure is good and fits the goals — to continue on    the same path with (both) the history of cinema and new films. This year’s selection of new films will have more surprises than last year. The main    competition last year was composed of mainly quite well-known directors; this year there is a good balance of first-time, lesser known and established    directors.”

Kouguell: Are there any current trends in filmmaking that you have found in this year’s films?

Chatrian:     “Cinema as an art form has more than one direction. Luckily there are filmmakers willing to take different directions and we see this here at this year’s    Festival. I’m always a little bit concerned when some critics say, ‘the new cinema will be this or that’ — what I can say is that cinema — especially    through young filmmakers — seems quite vibrant and not a dead art form.”

To read more about Agnes Varda, Roman Polanski and more…:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/susan-kouguell-interview-with-carlo-chatrian-artistic-director-of-the-locarno-international-film-festival-20140806