Bidding Farewell to Our Godmother, Agnès Varda

Developmentally Edited by Nathaniel BowlerCopy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

Back in 2009 when I was getting my PhD in English at Purdue University, I was selected for one of the coveted spots teaching a section of our department’s introduction to film studies course. Although the graduate students taught the course, we did not choose any of the films we watched or the texts we read. The course had been designed by an Ivy-League-educated professor who explained that films made by women did not belong in a regular film course but needed to be in a separate women’s film course—a course that did not exist anywhere in the Purdue curriculum and that he had no interest in ever offering. The films we taught were made by white male directors, and they featured an alarming array of violence against women that caused some of my women students to have nightmares that then became part of our weekly in-class discussions. Somehow in the midst of all this on-screen cruelty, the faculty member also included a documentary called The Gleaners and I by a French filmmaker I’d never heard of.

Agnès Varda directing La Pointe Courte.


From the first frame we were all in awe of this film and of this woman who took us on a journey to tell the stories of the women and men who went against our capitalist inclinations by picking the vegetables left to rot in the fields because they were too ugly for supermarkets and by making art out of what others throw away. She somehow managed to capture the essence of her characters in just a few minutes, and she connected their stories to her own meditations on aging and to her thoughts on her own legacy. In our discussions about the film, the students and I tried to articulate what had happened to us as we watched this marvel unfold. Agnès Vardawhose name immediately earned a place in my soulhad opened a door for us. She’d shown us a different way to tell filmic stories. She’d demonstrated that films featuring compassion, curiosity, and depth could be extraordinarily compelling. Not only could such films enlighten and entertain, they could also change the world. Literally, metaphorically, personally, nationally, and in all the ways in which change can emerge.

A year later, my friend Caitlan Spronk and I took an archives and digital humanities course at Purdue and decided to create an online space around women filmmakers for our final project. We weren’t quite sure what form our project would take. Some kind of a website where women filmmakers could come together, where they could write about their work, and where they could make it clear to the many professors and critics around the world who believe that women’s films are a lesser, separate art form that they are wrong. As we tried to figure out what this space would be called, we were looking for something that would encapsulate all those ideas and feelings, something that carried the collective power of women’s stories in a short, memorable name. I closed my eyes as I looked for the right name and saw the mirrors from Cléo from 5 to 7 reflecting Cleo’s strength and vulnerability as she navigated a patriarchal society. I saw Vagabond’s Mona shirking away every rule that those around her had decided she should abide by. I saw Agnés’s closeups of her wrinkled skin in Gleaners, the wonder she felt at the beautiful strangeness of her aging body. To me, there was only one name that embodied what we were hoping to do: agnès films.

No one could bring cats into her films like Agnès Varda.


I’m always struck by Agnès’s power to galvanize creativity as I meet women filmmakers through my work on this publication, through screening my own films at festivals, and through teaching film courses at Michigan State University, where work by women, people of color, and queer people always make up the vast majority of what we watch. Her films help us see the world in empathetic and inventive ways. She wields the power of people’s stories and the alchemy of images to get us to look at complex topics with nuance. There is something about her art, though, that is particularly inspiring to women filmmakers. Her work invites us to pick up the camera, to follow her lead and tell our own stories with our own voices about the topics that matter the most of us. We want to discover the world and the love and despair that resides in it in the same way she does. To me, the legacy of Agnès Varda, who died on March 29, 2019 of breast cancer, will encompass not only her unique, whimsical, and groundbreaking body of work but all the women that her films have persuaded to enter into the very male world of movie making. She has opened thousands of creative doors, and she will open thousands more. Her influence will live on for generations to come, and the world will be a much more compassionate, playful, and magical place because of it. Gracias, Agnès.

If you would like to learn more about Alexandra, be sure to check out her profile.