Agnès Varda, a pioneering French director whose rise to prominence during the male-dominated era of filmmaking paved the way for female directors, passed away Friday morning at the age of 90. Varda’s career during the New Wave era spanned more than half a decade, during which she directed some of the earliest feminist films.
When I first saw “The Beaches of Agnès,” a 2008 autobiographical documentary on Varda, I realized there was no one whose life I’d like to emulate more than hers. She captured images with complete originality, dedication and sympathy for her subjects — a rare trait for most filmmakers.
She was dedicated to feminism and equality, and her films brought to light issues that were rarely being shown on screen in the 1960s and ‘70s. She gave a voice to the voiceless, an image to the invisible and an ingenious authenticity to it all.
She was the first director who taught me filmmaking is more possible than it seems. She taught me about the power of observation — that anything could be cinema and that art could be found anywhere — which is a style she once referred to as “author-as-witness cinema.”
Varda’s final film, “Faces Places,” a collaboration with visual artist and photographer JR, captures this idea perfectly. In the 2017 documentary, the duo photographed people around France and put massive copies of their portraits up onto buildings, ships, trucks and even boulders.
Varda also taught me to accept the serendipity of life — that we will eventually end up where we’re supposed to be. During her time at universities, she practiced photography and studied literature, psychology, philosophy and art history with the intention of becoming a museum curator.
Eventually, she dedicated herself full-time to still photography, which led her to become a filmmaker. Despite being self-taught, filmmaking was clearly what she was meant to do, and the masterful images she captured are indelibly printed in cinematic history.
Varda taught me films could be about absolutely anyone, and that they should be about everyday people. Varda made films about the forgotten — people whom most other directors wouldn’t make films about.
This often meant women, but she also made films about the homeless, including “Vagabond,” and people living on the edge of society, such as in “The Gleaners and I.”
She was ahead of her time as one of the few female filmmakers working in France during the 1950s and ‘60s, and her film debut came before most of her male colleagues’ feature films. “La Pointe Courte,” made in 1955, is arguably considered to be the first film of the French New Wave — an era that produced some of the most famous French films of the 20th century.
Like her film’s subjects, though, Varda too was forgotten, and the film was overlooked in the boy’s club that was French cinema at the time. Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” is instead often given the honor of officially heralding in the New Wave despite being made a whole three years after Varda’s debut.
Varda eventually got her due — she received an honorary award at the 2017 Governors Awards — but it wasn’t about money or fame. If she was better funded as a female director and her work had been acknowledged as groundbreaking during her time, perhaps she would’ve been able to create ever more magnificent films.
But Varda taught me to press on and keep creating no matter what. The purpose of filmmaking for Varda was storytelling, and it was something meant to be shared and enjoyed with others. In an interview from 1967, Varda said, “I want my films to act as revelations.”
We may have lost Varda, but her spirit, joie de vivre and life-affirming films will live on. Her role as a pioneer of cinema for women and everyday people will never be forgotten. Vive Varda!