Agnès Varda’s legendary career was defined by many qualities, but two especially striking ones were playfulness and empathy. Her playful experiments with film form, including a blurring of the line between nonfiction and fiction, mark her as an innovator. At the same time, her empathy for whoever she is filming gives her films an emotional warmth that make them as compelling to watch for their narratives as they are for their formal experiments.
These qualities are on full display in two documentary shorts that Varda directed in the late 1960s. Varda was living in Los Angeles with her husband Jacques Demy because Columbia Pictures had asked him to make a movie for them after the success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She discovered that her father’s cousin Jean, an aging artist and non-conformist known to most as “Yanco,” was living in the northern Californian town of Sausalito. After meeting him on a Thursday, she decided to make a film about him, and completed filming by the following Monday.
The ensuing short film, Uncle Yanco, gleefully delights in playing with film form and blurring the line between nonfiction and fiction. Varda displays her first encounter with Yanco by showing multiple takes of them meeting, which are prefaced by yet more takes of Yanco asking who she is in various languages. In some of these takes, we can see a crew member clapping a slate at the beginning. These techniques draw attention to the fact that we are watching a narrative that Varda is constructing. This sequence also blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction because it was shot after Varda had already met Yanco. The fact that this sequence is a recreation of a real event, in addition to Varda’s narration and on-screen presence, draws attention to her control over what we are watching. This prefigures Orson Welles’s similar blend of fact and fiction in F For Fake, released six years later.
Varda probably felt she could take such formal liberties because she had a personal connection to the short’s subject matter. It is about her family and her discovery of a relative who is a kindred spirit to her. However, her life as a white French woman was very different from the subject matter of her next documentary short, Black Panthers.
That 1968 short film documents a political rally in Oakland to free imprisoned Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. In contrast to Uncle Yanco, which was formally inventive, Varda takes a cinéma vérité approach that includes interviews with a variety of members of the Black Panther Party, including Newton himself. She also doesn’t narrate the documentary, or make an appearance before the camera. By minimizing her own presence, Varda gives more space for the marginalized members of the Black Panther Party space to offer their opinions and commentary on American society.
While Varda’s approach may seem a little dated at times, her empathy for her subjects prevent it from being awkward. She seems genuinely interested in the people she interviews, and is content to listen to them talk and watch them demonstrate against Huey’s imprisonment. It is this empathy which makes Black Panthers an interesting model to study if you want to tell a story that is from a community to which you do not belong.
Varda had many great professional distinctions. She was a pioneer in the French New Wave, a great narrative filmmaker, and a fascinating visual artist. But if you want to see the qualities that helped make her an incredible artist in concentrated form — and why she was one of the best documentary filmmakers of all time — you need to watch Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers. They will make you ache for her loss, but also grateful that her playful and empathetic portraits of idiosyncratic Californians exist and will always be there for those who seek them out.
IU Cinema’s fall programming will conclude with two of Varda’s documentaries: The Gleaners and I on December 16 and the posthumous release of her final film, Varda by Agnès, on December 17 and 18. The latter film is part of the International Arthouse Series, while both screenings are part of the series Agnès by Varda.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.