BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: round three of shorts by the doyenne of the French New Wave.

AGNÈS VARDA’s good friend and co-film revolutionary Chris Marker once made one of the most astonishing pieces of cinema with La Jetée – a film composed of static, two-dimensional photographs (bar one moment in the film). The photographs replicated memory, because for Marker our memories are only played back to us in 2-D. These images are inherently unreliable, but they are the best we’ve got. This treatment of the static image appears to be the philosophical underpinning of the three wonderful short films which closed the Film Society’s Varda programme.

Ydessa, the Bears and etc (2004) looks at an art exhibit/installation The Living and the Artificial by Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles. Involved is an ocean of photographs, and each photograph has at least one teddy bear in it. Varda films the exhibit in Munich, and captures the artist, her Holocaust-surviving mother, visitors and curators of the exhibit and of course, Varda herself. The photographs capture something which came together at that exact moment (obviously), but Varda’s film explores her subjects, her and our reaction to that ‘moment’ removed from when that photo was taken. The photographs are a death shroud, long-lost people living their long-lost lives. The exhibit/installation’s focus on the teddy bears becomes the lasting image of the photo too by their sheer weight of numbers – you start to look for the teddy bears in the photo to the point where the people, their faces, their locales in the photographs become unimportant. Varda’s typical digressive (and subtle political streak) narrative works wonders – she manages to use the ‘small’ to comment on the very large.

Ulysse (1982) revisits Varda’s 1954 photo of a naked man, a naked boy, and a goat. The three elements of the photograph work together like the Sphinx’s riddle (the three stages of life), and the image itself is a haunting juxtaposition. However, that was then. Varda’s marvellous film deconstructs this image by revisiting it twenty-eight years later. She shows the man’s discomfort at making the photo, the way the boy was ‘constructed’ by Varda (he had to be carried to the photograph as he was unable to walk – the photograph evokes a completely different memory for the boy’s mother because of this), the fact the boy has no memory of the photograph in the first place, a painting of the ‘same image’ which captures the same moment in a completely different way, or that no-one was speaking for the goat (she also gets neighbourhood kids to ‘interpret’ the image). Varda highlights the inherent frailty of the image, and critiques this so-called objective document of history. She also juxtaposes this concern with the news of the day, the so-called facts from the day she took this photograph. The so-called objectivity of the news is swiftly demolished by this simple photograph she took on a deserted, rocky beach.

The final film, Salut les Cubains (1963), turns her photographs of post-revolutionary Cuba into a riotous celebration, and despite her philosophical concerns of the first two films, she also celebrates the power the image has of capturing life. She’s not afraid to highlight the ‘subjectivity’ in making the film (it’s narrated by her and Michel Piccoli), and the ‘subjectivity’ in where she placed the camera and put it together. Sure, what she has captured through her images are inherently frail, potentially untruthful, dead – but they’re also paradoxically, potent, real and fiercely alive.