With a huge body of work that spans decades, she is nicknamed the grandmother of 1960s French New Wave cinema and made a variety of films, including left-wing films like Far From Vietnam (1967) and Black Panthers, feminist films such as Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), as well as the award-winning drama Vagabond (1985) and the acclaimed documentary Gleaners and I (2000).
Yet even at 76, she is not slowing her pace at all. During her first visit to Taipei this week, fans were immediately impressed by her gregarious style, her curiosity and her willingness to speak about her films.
Varda allowed the Taipei Times to follow her for an afternoon and let her share some ideas about her life and her work.
Taipei Times: What are the ideas behind the film, Cinevardaphoto ? When Photos Trigger Films?
Agnes Varda: I started as a photojournalist. I have been interested in photos for 50 years. This short film trilogy brings together my thoughts on photography and photographs. I wanted to explore the ways those photos can be interpreted.
TT: Why did you structure Cinevardaphoto with three short films?
Varda: For Ydessa, the Bears and ETC (the first segment of the film), it started with my visit to a museum in Munich. Two rooms were filled with 4,000 pictures of teddy bears taken between the 1920s and 1930s. I was surprised and immediately had the desire to make a film about it and about the curator of the project.
I filmed Ydessa, the extraordinary woman who is the collector of the photos and curator of the project. There was a shocking part to the project where there was a statue of Hitler on his knee in another room.
I was surprised at the impact of the Holocaust on Ydessa's childhood memories. Even when her parents (Holocaust survivors) walked out of the shadow of that trauma, the daughter still seems to be carrying those memories on her shoulders.
In [the second] short film [Ulysses] I revisited the characters of a photo I shot in 1954, in which there was a naked man, a child and a dead goat. I was surprised by the memory they still had of taking the photo.
The [third] film about Cubans is another approach. I called it a socialist Cha-cha-cha. I documented the fresh revolution atmosphere four years after Fidel Castro took power. There was an energy and hopeful feeling throughout the whole country. I wanted to capture them and keep the feeling in its time. So I brought back 1,800 photos and made animation with them, accompanied by lively Cuban music.
TT: Can you explain your current installation work Patatutopia at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum?
Varda: In [Gleaners and I ], I followed and documented people gleaning unwanted potatoes in the fields. And I came across heart-shaped potatoes, which are considered bad shapes. For me it's a sentimental shape. It gives meaning to my search and adds a human level to the film, about consumption, waste and the garbage problem. I watched the heart-shaped potatoes grow old, and germinate and I decided to discover more about potatoes. It's an homage to potatoes, such a modest and ordinary food.
For me it's not about meanings, it's my trip entering the world of potatoes.
TT: How do you feel when making feature films and documentaries?
Varda: I like making documentaries and shorts. They are like the tickets to enter the business of filmmaking. Every four or five years I feel I want to make a documentary. For me, documentaries are like the close-up of reality to make a small part of reality stand out. But a fiction film is a selection of reality that you put in your fantasy.