Agnes Varda, the 89-year-old Belgian-born filmmaker, estimates that she receives a lifetime honour every three months.
“I’m old so they don’t know what to do with me,” she says with a smile.
On Saturday, Varda will receive one of the highest of such awards: an honorary Oscar, to be handed out at the annual Governor Awards, an untelevised dinner gala in Los Angeles. But the award doesn’t much impress Varda, a still-working titan of European cinema and the sole female filmmaker who was part of the historic New Wave in France.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m well known but still remain poor, with poor audiences and poor box office. It’s like a consolation,” said Varda in an interview earlier this autumn. “My daughter says I should go. But it’s the side Oscar. It’s not even in February. It’s in November. I think it’s the Oscar of the poor. I’m flattered but not that much.”
The Governors Awards were first held in 2009, jettisoning the lifetime achievement winners from the prime time Oscars broadcast. In recent years, the film academy has often used the awards — which are selected by the academy’s 54-member board — to reward a diverse group of filmmakers who have escaped the notice of the Oscars. Varda never received an Academy Award nomination, nor did her fellow honouree Charles Burnett, the groundbreaking independent filmmaker of Killer of Sheep.
Of the night’s two other selections — actor Donald Sutherland and cinematographer Charles Roizman — only Roizman (Network, The Exorcist) has previously been nominated.
Varda’s achievements, however, are well-known to cinephiles. Her 1956 film, La Pointe Courte, is credited as the first film of the New Wave. Her real-time 1962 masterpiece, Cleo from 5 to 7, is considered one of the era’s high points.
Originally a photographer, her films, from the fierce feminist 1985 landmark Vagabond to her tender 2009 memory sketch Beaches of Agnes, have charted a more eccentric and often whimsical path than many of her New Wave contemporaries. She’s small in stature but her dual-toned bowl-cut hairstyle is, like her movies, immediately identifiable as her own.
“Life comes through the frame and through the stock. It’s like a filter,” said Varda. “We filter life to make it accessible to us. We want to learn and then give to other people images, song and emotion and discovery. We are artisans. I feel I am an artist but I am a movie maker. I make a film with my hands. I love the editing, I love the mixing. It’s a tool to make other people exist. It’s giving understanding between people.”
Varda has long been an inspirational, pioneering figure for women directors. When she began making movies, she estimates, there were three women filmmakers in France.
“When I started, my point was not to be a woman. I wanted to do radical cinema,” said Varda. “Now, France is a country where 25 per cent of the filmmakers are women. We have an incredible amount of women film directors and DPs. More than here, I have to say. Because we have pushed the idea that they can do it, that there’s no reason they can’t do it. All the jobs of filmmaking can be made by women. And they are smart. And they are strong.”
And still Varda is among them. Her latest, recently released film, Faces Places, co-directed with the 34-year-old street artist JR, is among the year’s most lauded releases. In it, the unlikely duo travel the French countryside meeting regular people, hearing their stories and then pasting grand photograph portraits of them across huge real-world tableaus.
“We tried to lighten. The world is such a mess, such a chaos. We decided we should not tell more about the chaos,” said Varda. “Maybe we are light. Maybe we like to smile. Maybe we love people so much that we want you to love them also.”