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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Agnès Varda: Diminutive doyenne of the French New Wave dead at 90

Agnès Varda: Diminutive doyenne of the French New Wave dead at 90

She would have turned 91 in two months, but breast cancer claimed her last week. The end came at her Paris home. Till the end, she remained the only female member of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Her last film was Varda by Agnès, shown at the Berlinale earlier this year. It was an unpredictable documentary from a fascinating story-teller, shedding light on her experience as a director, bringing a personal insight to what she calls “cine-writing”.

Full of her lively anecdotes, the film is divided into two parts. In the first section, she elucidates her ‘analogue period’ from 1954 to 2000, when films were made entirely on celluloid, in which the director is in the foreground. Agnès was the young woman who was out on a mission to re-define cinema, who, with every new film, changed her narrative style. In the second part, Agnès Varda focusses on the years 2000-2018, and shows how she used digital technology to look at the world in her own, distinctive way.

Born on 30 May 1928, in Brussels, to Greek-French parents, her birth name was Arlette and she was raised in France, studying at the École de Louvre and Sorbonne, intending to become a museum curator. Destiny willed otherwise, and she became a still photographer, joining the Théâtre National Populaire, where she worked for ten years, 1951-61. It was her that her interest in theatre and films was kindled, although she had seen less than a dozen films in her life. Her first film was Le Point Courte (The Short Point), 1954, which was edited by Alain Resnais, who was to become another star of the New Wave. It was set in an impoverished seaside fishing village in southern France, where the fisherman eke out a living.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961), her second film, about a pop singer who is awaiting the results of a medical test that will determine whether she has a terminal illness, brought her the Méliès Prize. In 1962, she married director Jacques Demy, with whom she had been living for three years, and they were together till he passed away, in 1990. Critics felt that her third film, Le Bonheur (The Happiness, 1965) had the mark of Demy’s style. Its subject dealt with a young husband and father, François married to the good-natured, beautiful Thérèse, who finds himself falling unquestioningly into an affair with an attractive postal worker. The film bagged the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize in a year when Satyajit Ray got the Silver Bear for Best Director-Charulata. Other encomiums were the Louis Delluc Prize and the David Selznick Award.

Coming to the USA in 1968, she made two shorts and a feature, with distinct signs of her leftist orientation and her love-hate relationship with the US. One of these was Black Panthers, a classic documentary, highlighting the activities of the headquarters of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, as its members fight for the freedom of its imprisoned co-founder, Huey P. Newton. Huge success came her way with Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond; 1985), a staged documentary of a homeless derelict, which was awarded the Golden Lion for the Best Film at Venice, LA Critics Award for Best Foreign Film  and a César Award for Best Actress to Sandrine Bonnaire.

Interestingly, Varda made three films on her husband, Jacques Demy. The first was a fiction effort, about Jacques’ childhood, called Jacquot de Nantes (1990). Next she chose to focus on Demy’s 1967 film The Young Girls of Rochefort, and titled it The Young Girls Turn 25 (French: Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans, 1993) and lastly, we had the documentary film, filmed from an objective point of view, about Jacques Demy, as an adult and a film-maker. It was called Le Univers de Jacques Demy (The Universe of Jacque Demy, 1993). She recorded reminiscences, and asked for reactions. Varda provided some of her personal memories and documents about him.  

Les Cents et Une Nuits (de Simon Cinéma, 1995) was released to mark the centenary of cinema, widely believed to have originated in 1895. The central character in the film is Monsieur Simon Cinéma—once an author, director and producer— now nearly one hundred years old and wheel-chair bound, but doesn’t look it. Famous actors drop by to visit their old friend. He doesn’t care about his age any more, it is the golden age for him, rich and happy forever. A tribute to the movies as both collective memory and living art form, as told through the reminiscences of Simon, who lives in a splendid chateau, whose every inch overflows with cine-memorabilia. Monsieur Simon Cinéma hires a young attractive film student, Camille, to visit him once a day for, 101 days, in order to make sense of his muddled fancies.

More recently, she made the following films:

2000    Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse       The Gleaners and I      

2002    Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse... deux ans après     The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later  

2004    Cinévardaphoto           

2006    Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier    Some Widows of Noirmoutier        

2008    Les plages d'Agnès       The Beaches of Agnès

2017    Visages Villages            Faces Places

Varda wrote most her films herself and also edited some of them. Her1994 autobiography was called Varda by Agnès. Agnès was 87 when she received the ‘MAMI Tribute to International Cinema’ award at the 17th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), 2015. Rosalie, her daughter, delivered a Master Class on Costume Designing at the 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa, 2016. Rosalie Varda-Demy is a costume designer and a French art director. Rosalie designs costumes for theatre, opera and cinema. She is also the artistic director for Cine-Tamaris, the family production and distribution company. Rosalie Varda and her brother Mathieu Demy are in charge of the film fund of their parents Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy. Rosalie Varda is the daughter of Antoine Bourseiller and Agnès Varda. She was legally adopted by Jacques Demy when he married Agnès Varda.

Like the title of her film Faces Places, her impish face will be missed in many places. Agnès Varda’s immense contribution to new cinema, including landmarks in feminist cinema, will carve her place in film history forever. And by feminism, she meant equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunities for women. Having lived through three generations of technological advances, "I have an iPhone, I have an iPad. But I’m not on Facebook. It gets on my nerves," she once told an nterviewer. She will be long remembered as the grandmother of the Nouvelle Vague.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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