Potatoes shaped like hearts, gleaned from the stacks of culls by director Agnes Varda for "The Gleaners and I"

Trash or treasure? A perennial question, made more vivid as one packs up one’s belongings. Here are some things I own, gleaned from thrift stores and the like:

  • A commemorative plate featuring a South Dakota grain silo
  • A mug in the shape of the state of California (truly impractical for coffee)
  • A particularly exaggerated pair of 1950s cat glasses embedded with rhinestones
  • A poster advertising a mid-1980s protest against the Miss America pageant

My penchant for this stuff isn’t just limited to my (charming? appalling?) home décor or a longstanding love of dumpster diving. I’m on a research trip right now, which means I’m scouring research libraries between Philadelphia and New York City right now. What I’m looking at could easily be described as “stuff that was — and probably is now — considered trash.” I’ll never forget the first time I met an archivist, who explained that if his library received a bunch of stuff from someone’s attic, they kept every single piece of paper. Even the scratch paper on which someone figured some sums in 1956. Apparently archivists treat every single piece of paper like it’s treasure, because you never know what people will want to look at in 100 years.

I’ve been thinking about the trash/treasure dynamic ever since seeing two documentaries: Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, 2000) and Lucy Walker’s Waste Land (2010), each of which received many film prizes. Varda begins with classic paintings of les glaneurs by 19th-century artists Millet (above) and L’hermitte in order to ask, where are today’s gleaners? By gleaning, we mean of course going into the fields after hired pickers have left with the vast majority of a crop. Gleaners pick up the remnants — the oddly-shaped potatoes that can’t be sold, the bits of wheat left on the ground, the grapes that were overlooked. They’re scavengers of a kind.

Or is scavengers too ineffective a descriptor? Some of the men and women explain that they have strong environmental or philosophical commitments that make them glean. One interviewee bemoans the way people use things for a few years, throw them away, buy new things. Another makes art out of trash. Many of them cite the 15th-century French law establishing the right to glean, indicating its importance to the history of their country. You could say other things, too — gleaners are thrifty, or impoverished, or a part of a shadow economy that avoids the use of money when possible.

But the eminently playful and unexpected Varda doesn’t try to come up with big explanations or grand theories. Instead, she starts to play with the idea of gleaning. With her own hand-held camera, she can film with one hand and use the other to frame a truck on the highway — but then she pauses to think about her aging hand, her grey hair (she was in her 70s when she made the film). “My hands keep telling me that the end is near,” she explains with a bit of wry observation. Isn’t film directing itself — especially for documentaries — essentially a kind of gleaning?

I don’t quite know how she did it, but Varda has managed to create a film that thinks about trash, treasure, and humanity. The philosophizing sneaks up on you; the delicate, subtle editing never ceases to juxtapose ethics with art, survival with environmentalism. It’s gorgeous.

The Gleaners and I is a small masterpiece, and even if Lucy Walker’s Waste Land is not quite that, it’s a beautiful, smart film about the correlation between trash and the forgotten castes of society. Walker tells the story of how artist Vik Muniz decides to use his art to give something back to the poorest people of Brazil, from whence he came. Returning to Rio, he focuses in on the catadores, or the individuals who pick recyclable materials out of the Jardim Gramacho, an enormous landfill outside of Rio, and one of the largest garbage dumps in the world. Spending long days picking plastic bottles out of the trash can net a woman picker $20 or $25, one explains, barely enough to survive.

At first, Walker’s camera tells Vik’s story — how he managed to escape a life of permanent poverty in Brazil, his previous art successes, his eagerness to help the catadores. But when we meet the real people, the story changes. The people are amazing, beautiful, brilliant, fascinating. Isis spills forth the news that her heart is broken after a relationship with a man; she wipes tears from her eyes. Tiaõ (posed as Marat above) is a philosopher; despite having worked as a picker since he was 11, he’s read all the books he found in the garbage and has absorbed a strong view of the catadores‘ role in society, of the importance of labor. Magna tells us how other passengers on the bus hold their noses when she gets on — but she maintains her self-respect because she knows she’s kept herself away from turning tricks. And then there’s Valter, a model of self-respect and pride for his class of pickers. When Vik introduces himself, the nearly toothless Valter explains:

I hope you understand me because I don’t have either a primary or secondary education. You didn’t ask me, but I’m going to introduce myself. I like introducing myself with my own voice. I have been a picker here for 26 years; I am proud to be a picker. [He explains he is vice-president of ACAMJG, the workers’ union at Jardim Gramacho.] … I carry this with pride.

Vik takes pictures of a small group of catadores at work and then hires them to help him create his art. Projecting each image onto an enormous white floor, the pickers use garbage to re-create the photo. Every line of a face, every bit of empty space is filled with garbage, creating effusions of color and texture:

Then Vik photographs the final painting of garbage and takes each model with him to international auctions, where the images are sold; he then presents that picker with the proceeds of the sale. (This was a little vague; did each individual get a different amount, depending on how well the photo sold? Did Vik take nothing for his expenses? Did Tiaõ, for example, really get the full $50,000 in a lump sum from the sale of his photograph?) We do know, however, that when Tiaõ hears the final sale price of his photograph, he cannot stop weeping.

About halfway into the film — by which time we’ve gotten to know the catadores — I started to see a rift in the film. Its center is still Vik, the rags-to-riches artist who now lives in comfort in Brooklyn; but as he and his wife bicker a bit about what kind of future awaits Vik’s models, we start to see how far away he is from them. I never doubted his sincerity or his eagerness to help Isis, Valter, and the others; it’s just that he hasn’t really thought it through. His wife points out that taking these individuals out of the Jardim Gramacho only to send them back there is cruel. Maybe this work will show them other lines of work, Vik suggests weakly. Maybe it will show them the other possibilities for life and work beyond the landfill.

Don’t get me wrong: the film never criticizes Vik. In fact, it insists on portraying his project as wholly selfless, and I believe it was. But another filmmaker might have asked more questions rather than stick to a simple feel-good story. It’s not that I wanted a feel-bad story; it’s just that Vik’s obvious appreciation for the pickers was weirdly juxtaposed against his (and our) obvious sense that working in the garbage must be a terrible job, and his sense that they must want to leave it. Together, Walker and Vik seem to miss the extent to which individuals like Valter and others find great meaning in being members of a laboring class, as well as specific pride in their work at picking recyclables. When he’s introduced by a snazzy talk-show host as being a representative of “garbage pickers,” Tiaõ fires back immediately with a strong sense of pride in labor: “We are not pickers of garbage; we are pickers of recyclable materials.” The talk show host is obviously taken aback. It’s telling that Tiaõ uses his money to beef up the pickers’ union and to create a proper library for them, and to become an even more effective advocate for the catadores as a whole.

I’m curious: what does it mean that women directors tell these tales of gleaning, of picking through the waste, of creating treasure from trash? Is there something particularly female about the pursuit? Or is it simply that women make up such a larger percentage of documentarians? I’m not sure I have an answer to this. Certainly on my thrift store/dumpster diving expeditions I saw just as many men as women. Perhaps it’s only the women who step back and see the act as indicative of something larger about the human condition?