Saturday, February 28, 2015

Agnès Varda - righteous, ordinary people

Homage aux Juste de France, Agnes Varda,
Avignon Festival 2007
The greatest thing that happened in googlemail this week was notification of the Brighton Festival programme and one name leapt out - AgnèVarda. I saw an installation of hers at the Avignon Festival in 2007 of films and still photography. It was in a 1930s mirror factory due for demolition - just outside the city walls -not one of the prestigious historically beautiful venues, but striking because of the depth of thought and the simplicity of the idea.

Hommage aux Justes de France shows persecution of the Jews and risks taken by ordinary country people in hiding them. What Varda did to make it even more real was to take photos of people who, in these days, might hide someone being persecuted alongside the names of those who did offer help during WW2.

The Avignon Festival described it in this way: "Agnès Varda designed an installation made up of people gazing and staring to honour these men, these women, a village (Chambon-sur-Lignon is the only community to have received this recognition on a collective basis): to see the faces, the gestures, the attentions, the hideouts….

"The photographs of the faces are laid out on the floor or propped up in pairs like books over a large circle. The faces of the righteous and of the extras, representing the thousands of unknown people whose images have disappeared, appear in the film she made. Above the circular set are four screens on which are projected two feature films directed by Agnès Varda. One is dark, unsettling and “historical” in black and white and the other simultaneously illustrates, in their everyday living conditions and in colour, the detail, the texture and the gestures of the Righteous as they saved Jews. Right at the back, stands the large tree of giant photographs as if nature had entered history." It's a poor translation, but it will do.

Varda is going strong at 86 and is dealing with ageing in her work. So although every year I moan about the Brighton festival and its absent literature programme, this year I don't care. There is Varda.

Other news by email made me feel I was walking on a Cornish beach. I can do the reading group I run for the Royal Literary Fund for another year. More quiet mornings each week browsing short stories, wondering which poet's work I want to pick a poem out of. Like cleaning the house or gardening, everything else is shut out and while I don't have a consciously formed criteria for selecting what I'll read aloud, I am sniffing for the quality of language and emotional integrity of a piece of writing.
In my own writing I know I fail more often than I succeed, so to see others do it well is a confirmation of why I still want to write, even when I can't.

When I was trying to write poems in my early 30s I sent some off to a critical service. I remember them as long-lined, undisciplined prose - emotional, political and possibly cynical. At the time I hadn't heard of the poet who read them, but later I met him. He was Roland John, editor of the magazine Outposts and Hippopotamus Press, kind in his feedback. And he said that if he wrote a single poem that lasted, he'd be happy - or something like that. I probably don't have it now, but I was shocked at the thought of just one poem lasting.
Portraits of ageing, Prison St Anne, Avignon 2014

It chimes with the reading group. Each week I choose one poem and one story by a writer. I don't claim to choose their 'best' or even the most representative, although I am influenced by others' tastes because I rely on anthologies sometimes and I am limited in my story choice by length. But often when I'm wondering what to take to the group I have a writer in mind, whose work I admire and I want to share it.

All praise to Brighton Festival 2015 for programming Varda. All praise to the Royal Literary Fund for concentrating on reading.