April 1, 2013

Playback: Agnes Varda's 'The Beaches of Agnes'


Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

Sometimes a documentary not only inspires you, but also gives you courage.

I was inspired when legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda stepped in front of the camera to tell her own story.

At the time, I was having a crisis in the editing room, where I realized I needed to take the film that I was working on, Connected, in a completely different direction-a personal direction, which scared the hell out of me. In order to get to the root of our strong desire for connection, technologically and otherwise, I had to explore what connection meant to me on a very essential level. I had made eight films, and none were personal. I looked for guideposts. I re-watched the great docs Tarnation, 51 Birch Street, My Architect and Sherman's March, among a small number of others. While autobiographies have flourished in literature, they are still rare in documentary film.

So there I was, searching, seeking, cutting and pasting, when I received an e-mail about a "self-portrait" film by Varda, The Beaches of Agnès. The film was playing at an art-house theater in town. I bolted from the editing room on a cloudy Wednesday to catch the matinee. Varda appeared on screen like a wise cinematic goddess, generously sharing this experimental journey of her life, her memories, her soul. She revealed her creative inspirations, her heartbreaks and her joie de vivre.


Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

The film was so enveloping and honest, illusive and funny. It included re-enactments on beaches that reminded me of Bergman, the surrealists and a little Monty Python all rolled into one. I loved the freedom that she explored, her history and how she tapped into a visual stream of consciousness about life and death.

Her being a woman was also essential in the way she spoke to me from the screen. When I studied film history at University of California, Berkeley, I remember how much I searched for women directors, and Varda was one of only two in the French New Wave Movement. She has led an extraordinary life that has included plotlines with Chris Marker and Harrison Ford, who make appearances in the film. But it is perhaps in her focusing on the little things, the smaller moments, that enables you to appreciate the grand scope of life.

Varda is a forager, and in The Beaches of Agnès, she forages parts of her life to create a collage, a canvas of life itself.

Varda's autobiographical story was just what I needed to see that day. She breaks many visual and storytelling boundaries, in an experimental, stream-of-consciousness, glorious way that inspired me to find my own path of speaking my truth and, hopefully, tap into universal truths.

Tiffany Shlain's film Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology can be found on connectedthefilm.com and was released digitally and on VOD on February 5. She also has a new short film and TED Book titled Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks. www.tiffanyshlain.com.

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