Je suis toujours partante si on ira vers les paysages simples. Vers les villages. Vers les visages.
I am all in if we are going into the countryside. Toward the villages. Toward the faces.
Nearing 90 and almost blind, French new wave filmmaker AgnÃ¨s Varda remains as creative, curious, and intuitive as ever. Her endless fascination with people, both their faces and their stories, was part of the inspiration for her latest documentary: Visages, Villages or Faces, Places in English. Another inspiration was her desire to finally collaborate with another artist. She has said that she always wanted to collaborate but the right opportunity never presented itself. The inspiration arrived in the form of a tall dark-glasses wearing photographer and street artist named JR.
Their collaboration became a chatty road trip, a filmmaking process as well as the subject of the film. The two artists set out on the open road in JR’s magic van which is equipped with a photo booth as well as a large-format black and white printer. They wanted to travel the forgotten parts of the French countryside to see the people, hear their stories, and leave something behind for them.
Their first stop was a now-defunct mining village in northern France, an area that has been devastated and left behind by the fast-paced post-industrial era. Stopping to take in a long row of brick houses built for miners of bygone days and now slated for demolition, they knocked on doors hoping to find someone to help them understand what this meant to the villagers. The first door they knocked on opened slowly but slammed closed much faster. Finally, they encountered a woman who had reluctantly become a present-day local legend. Yes, she had received her eviction notice. No, she would not be vacating. They asked her to introduce them to some of the retired miners who remained in the town. After listening to their stories, many of them multi-generational tales of the dark and dangerous, not to mention exploitive, life in the mines they consented to having their pictures taken.
This is where the magic van becomes a character in the story. Within minutes the large-format photographs emerge from the van. JR and his crew erect scaffolding in front of the row of brick homes, many now empty, and—to the amazement and fascination of the locals—glue the giant photographs to the face of the buildings as an homage.
Moving on, they somehow gained access to a highly-industrialized mineral processing plant that operates around the clock with three different crews. Employing the same method, they first spoke with the workers and eventually asked them to pose, this time in groupings with their arms raised above their heads and reaching toward the diagonal. The resulting photos were plastered to the walls of the tunnel that leads in and out of the facility.
Venturing into the French farmlands, they met a farmer who worked his own 500 acres as well as 1,500 acres belonging to his neighbors, all alone. Aided by his technologically sophisticated tractor of the future, he spoke in simple but poetic terms about his solitary work, his admiration for technology and his pride about his role in stewarding the land. You may have guessed by now, his giant photo was eventually plastered on the side of his barn.
Never becoming explicitly political or polemic, but simply curious to know people, Varda elicits their stories and allows their poignancy and poetry to depict the struggles of the working poor and the fate of villages that industry has abandoned. Many of these stories felt melancholy, not maudlin, but with the weight of posterity reaching into the present. Questions of future and fate were left unasked or unanswered.
Exploring around a modernized goat farm, they were surprised to see that the younger goats had horns but the older ones did not. When asked, the farmer matter-of-factly explained that the horns must be burned off to avoid fights among the goats who are naturally aggressive unless controlled. Their udders attached to stainless-steel milking machines, each of the goats is relieved of her milk so cheese can be made in a sterilized kitchen resembling a laboratory.
During a visit to a neighboring and much more rustic farm, tended by a woman who has clearly seen her share of the outdoors, Varda elicits a nuanced vignette about the simpler methods of keeping and tending goats. Horns intact, her herd runs freely across the meadows until milking time. Having found the machines more trouble than they’re worth, this farmer preferred to milk by hand. Asked about the practice of burning the horns, she is adamant that this is necessary only as a way of maximizing profits by pacifying and over-crowding the animals.
Varda and JR sit in front of a horned goat adorning another barn and their tale of the challenges of modern versus ancient goat farming in complete. No didactic voice-overs about the hidden costs of industrialization and capitalism for Varda. Just people reflecting on their lives and work with the critical thinking that seems natural to the French.
In a French television interview filmed at Varda’s longtime residence in the 14th arrondisement of Paris, the filmmaker and photographer-driver-street artist talked about the intersection of their work. Varda places a high value on the people she encounters. The people in the street, people everywhere. Her vision involves revealing these people as she comes to know them—as unique and prized beings—to others who would not otherwise have the opportunity to hear their stories. JR, according to Varda, emphasizes the heroism in each of his subjects by the grand scale of their photographs and their prominent placement on iconic structures.
As the film rolls on, little bits of biography sneak in to illuminate Varda and JR and also their unusual relationship. JR’s very elderly grandmother is introduced and friends from Varda’s past are summoned. A sixty-year old photo of Varda’s close friend, the late fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, became the subject of another installation. The duo embarked on a train trip to see Varda’s another long-time friend, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. This touching finale reveals much more about Varda and JR than the illusive Godard.
Faces/Places is a film by two generous storytellers who see the best in people and leave behind a mural for any and all passers-by to contemplate, for as long as it lasts. As a man casually said when he passed one of the murals: “It’s surprising, isn’t it? But that is what art is supposed to do. Surprise.”
Photos © AgnÃ¨s Varda