After relocating to California from Paris in the 1960s, Agnès Varda found herself in intriguingly unfamiliar territory. Her openness and curiosity – virtues apparent in all of her cinema – served her especially well in this chapter of her oeuvre.
She came at just the right cultural moment, with revolution in the air, her free spirit found a home away from home—one that beckoned for her to return over a decade later to make two more films bringing her grand total to three features and two shorts in the golden state. Two of them, Lions Love (. . . And Lies) (1969) and Documenteur (1981) are, albeit somewhat vaguely, works of narrative. While qualities abound in each, Lions Love finds itself dated by its wide-eyed Warhol-reverent naiveté.
Documenteur passes the test of time more successfully, an intimately personal articulation of loneliness in Los Angeles, channeled through a portrait of a mother and son living a secluded daily life by a beach. However, it’s in her three documentaries that Varda’s infectious personality shines through. It’s often the case that within the doc mode Varda is looser, and her own presence is more easily felt.
In cinema, outsider perspectives on foreign cultures and places can yield results more insightful and sensitive than work produced by locals. In particular, there’s something special about the French’s point-of-view on America. In the same dynamic that found Parisian intellectuals detecting artistry in Classical Hollywood cinema, birthing the auteur theory, American as seen through a French lens almost appears more beautiful, or rather, our view is sharpened, more aware of that which is unique in American society. Louis Malle’s U.S.-set documentaries in the 80s bring a similarly fresh, intelligent, and generous angle.
1967’s Uncle Yanco, Varda’s first California film, is her most joyous. Documenting the discovery of a San Francisco-based ancestor (not, technically, her uncle) named Jean Varda, nicknamed Yanco, a Greek ex-pat who swapped his home turf for Paris then America, finally settling in the “aquatic suburbia” of Sausalito where he works as a patiner. This slender but not slight short film beautifully captures the sensation of encountering a stray family member. Assembled freely, with spontaneous montage, and filled with an exuberant colour palette seemingly adopted from Yanco’s bright and vivid artwork, the film finds Varda at her most fancy-free. Briefly, we get acquainted with the local hippie community, who, enamored by the eccentric Yanco, visit him for weekly boat rides. Yanco praises the student protests of the time, and while the film doesn’t delve into the tumultuous political climate of late 60s America, it hints at the context, which Varda will immerse herself—and the viewer—in her subsequent films.
Varda’s own voice is less pronounced in one of her most memorable and impassioned documentaries. 1968’s Black Panthers finds the filmmaker in a less personal role, filming the Black Panthers amid protests of the imprisonment of activist Huey P. Newton, who had been arrested for shooting a police officer after being arbitrarily pulled over (he was convicted, but the details of the crime are ambiguous). It’s an intense political moment that speaks to larger prevalent issues within America. Varda is most interested in letting the Black Panthers speak for themselves, and to document their methods of organization, and to articulate the urgency of their plight. In this sense, it’s a cousin to Varda’s Salut les Cubains, made a few years earlier in Cuba. Both films, albeit from very different sides, portray a revolutionary spirit in a temporal window of fervent conviction. Black Panthers highlights the strong feminine presence within the organization’s leadership and overall makeup, leading Varda’s own political thinking further down a feminist path.
Fast forward to 1980: Varda has returned to California—initially for another project that fell through—when she ends up directing the best film to come out of her time there: Mur Murs. A deep and fruitful investigation into the murals that adorn many-a-building in LA, the film feels like a living art gallery. Stunned by the beauty and artistry in the city’s plethora of large-scale street art, Varda brings many of the best murals (circa 1980) together in Mur Murs. The film is a beautiful way of experiencing the artworks, which feel curated by Varda’s foreign eye—it feels as though she gives them the respect they deserve, at once separating them from their mundane surroundings to give them clarity, while also giving them their proper context, situating them in a physical and a political space in the documentary. Varda makes a point of meeting all of the artists—many of whom are minorities—getting to know them, their intentions, thoughts, and feelings.
The resulting portrait is of LA’s diverse ethnic communities and their remarkable modes of expression. While the ideas behind the murals are as varied as the specific cultural backgrounds that inform their creators’ experiences, Varda’s film aligns them in splendid solidarity, united by their individuality, the oppression which they face, and the strength with which they face it. Above all else, it’s one of the great films that excavates, with great eloquence, the human beauty of a city’s population. Its power comes from Varda’s humanist instincts, the underlying quality of all of her films, which leads her to taking each person on their own terms, and giving them the space they deserve to define themselves.