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Agnès Varda in Jane B. for Agnes V. (1988)
Agnès Varda in Jane B. for Agnes V. (1988)

The tireless feminist spirit of Agnès Varda

The pioneering filmmaker passed away on March 29, but leaves behind her an incomparable catalogue of films that made politics personal

“I tried to be a joyful feminist, but I was very angry.” These are the words of an 80-year-old Agnès Varda in The Beaches of Agnès, reflecting on her life. A collage of memories from her career as photojournalist and filmmaker, the film buzzes with the energy of a woman who combined the personal with the political, and displayed an infectious passion for the power of cinema and images. To Varda, the freedom of women was a joyful prospect, but she was always painfully aware that the battle for equality was far from over.

Varda died on Friday March 29 at the age of 90 from cancer in Paris, surrounded by friends and family. Hailed as the grandmother of the French New Wave, she was an active director until very recently with her final adieu, Varda by Agnès, premiering at the Berlin film festival just a few months ago.

Over the last couple of years, her radical films have been finally, rightly recognised by the Oscars with an Honorary Award and a nomination for Faces Placesa reflexive documentary about her life and work co-directed with close friend and photographer JR. She recently embraced new technology with a playful Instagram account, in which she celebrated the people she met and the places she went on her farewell tour of beloved film festivals like Cannes. Her curious spirit will live on through her poetic films and photographs, but a unique, fiercely political artist and inspiring feminist has been lost.

Varda believed you never stop learning, and she brought that idea to life through her experimental films by never sticking to one style. She was born on May 30 1928 in Brussels to a French mother and Greek father; the family later relocated to Southern France, and then to Paris where she studied. A rebel from a young age, Varda changed her name from Arlette to Agnès at the age of 18, and ran away in the summer to take a job on a fishing boat. In the 1950s, director Alain Resnais introduced her to the members of Les Cahiers du Cinema, and she made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, which took her back to Sète, the fishing town where she grew up. It predated The New Wave by five years – but early in her career, Varda’s work didn’t get the recognition it deserved. She had a natural flair for filmmaking and an intuitive style which would serve her well artistically, but was nevertheless overshadowed by her male peers for years.

Her films are hugely accessible and empathetic, and her courage and curiosity spoke volumes, with her work taking her to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro and Greece to confront a fascist government. For a while she lived in LA with her filmmaker husband Jacques Demy, where she met with members of the Black Panther party including Huey P. Newton, and turned her camera on African-American women involved in the movement. Many of her early political documentaries were censored in France, including Black Panthers. In the 1970s, Varda released her outspoken feminist musical inspired by the Bobigny abortion trial, and set up her own production company, Ciné-Tamaris, with a cat as her emblem (a cat on her director’s chair is also her touching final post on Instagram).  

Varda’s feminism was sincere, and when she saw injustice or sexism, she investigated. Le Bonheur is a great example of how she explored the concept of marriage, the value of women, and the fabrication of happiness with a wicked sense of humour.

“Varda rebelled against typical French portraits of the bourgeois by taking to rural villages and seaside towns, and meeting with those who lived off the land or with no roof over their head”

Varda was also interested in how people on the fringes lived; she rebelled against typical French portraits of the bourgeois by taking to rural villages and seaside towns, and meeting with those who lived off the land or with no roof over their head. For Vagabond, Varda met with homeless youths and cast real people in her film. One of Varda’s most significant documentaries, The Gleaners and I, also located commonalities between herself and people who scavenged off scraps. While also a harsh criticism of consumerism, the film manages to be deeply personal – another common trait of Varda’s work.

Each Varda film you watch brings you closer to her revolutionary essence. Documentary Daguerréotypes is, on the surface, a portrait of the local community of shopkeepers around the corner from where Varda lived, but she also claimed it was an expression of her feminism, with the long power cable she trailed from her house in order to film the project an extension of her umbilical cord as she attempted to balance her frustrations about filmmaking with motherhood. Her resourcefulness ensured she could continue with her artistic endeavours.

Varda never compromised on her distinct vision, and stayed true to her own voice. Her films are unique (she coined the word ’cinecriture‘ to define them), but she has influenced many filmmakers, critics and programmers with her innovative techniques and inclusive attitude. Among her many famous admirers, directors such as Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay have cited her passion as an inspiration, and Martin Scorsese paid tribute to her ‘lyrical and unflinching’ approach to filmmaking. She was fearless till the end.

Read about five of Agnès Varda’s lesser known films here