When we last spoke she told me how she saw her work in nonfiction: "It's like being a sociologist -- but not as a teacher; sociologist as a friend."
Director Agnès Varda, one of the most important figures in the French New Wave and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, died in Paris Friday morning at the age of 90. The cause, from breast cancer, was confirmed by a representative of her production company.
Varda remained a vital artist until the end of her life, earning an Oscar nomination just last year for her documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), co-directed by the French conceptual artist known as JR. A few months before that nomination she earned an honorary Academy Award for her body of work.
Along with Faces Places, she created some of the most distinctive and essential films of nonfiction cinema, including The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d'Agnès) in 2008 and The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse) in 2000. Her fictional work included Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985) and Le Bonheur (1965).
I always hate the idea that because it's a documentary it should be boring. Sometimes it is. We have seen plenty of them.
Varda's documentaries presented a unique view of the world, touchingly alive to beauty all around us -- in "ordinary" people, for example, or in something mundane to most people like the lowly potato. In her hands (both literally and figuratively) a potato appeared as a work of art, especially the ones deemed discardable for their twisted shapes, their "ugliness."
Potatoes were an important part of The Gleaners and I, and they were the subject of an art exhibit she created that included a short film about the stem vegetables.
"I found them beautiful," she explained at an appearance at the American Cinemathèque in Los Angeles in October 2017. "I tried to share that. It's not only documenting things but having a third look at things and what we can do with our eyes and our attention."
There was a consistency between her love of the expressions of nature -- what is considered aesthetic and what is not -- and her view of human beings she met on her cinematic travels. She was open to people, no matter where they came from, open to their loves, joys, experience, idiosyncrasies -- in short, their humanity.
"I've made films mostly [about] people in the margins, people like gleaners, squatters, fishermen, abandoned people," she commented at the American Cinemathèque. "Because it is so terrible that our society doesn't allow the people to be different."
Her films were distinctly non-sentimental. They were imbued with what might be called whimsy -- except that whimsy implies a detachment from the world, a floating above it, if only a few feet. Varda's feet were planted in the earth though, in what grew from it in all its forms.
A little over a year ago I spoke with her by phone at her house in Paris in preparation for a piece about Faces Places. The film finds her traveling across rural France with JR, encountering villagers from many walks of life.
"Listening to people, giving them a lot of empathy, a lot of love and because of that they were very open, very interesting," she told me. "They talked. It's not a question-answer. It's a conversation. That's what it was. So the audience feels it. That's what our job is, to make links. That's what we made. We made links. Voilà."
She offered insight into how she viewed her role as filmmaker in Faces Places.
"It's a supposition of documentary which is like being a sociologist -- but not as a teacher; sociologist as a friend. I say it as a 'smiling sociologist,'" she commented with a laugh.
With her passing I think back on her talk at the American Cinemathèque in 2017, where she showed The Gleaners and I and Vagabond. She was unaffected, humorous, self-deprecating.
"I don't want to bore you with my artistic life," she told the audience. Reflecting on her approach to art and life, she added, "It's interesting to go on by curiosity, by love of people, and then imagination. We have to have the power of imagination. We should not lose that power."
In this video, Agnès Varda comments on her classic film, The Gleaners and I. From her appearance at the American Cinemathèque in Los Angeles in October 2017.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.