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Agnès Varda on Radical Filmmaking: ‘I Never Thought I Didn’t Have the Right’

“I don’t feel like filming people that have power. I’m much more interested in the rebels, the people who fight for their own life,” says Agnès Varda, the French new wave legend, who will become the first female director to receive an honorary Academy Award on Nov. 11.

From her 1955 film debut, “La Pointe Courte,” to her recently released documentary, “Faces Places,” the unsung hero has been a theme in much of Varda’s work. “There is something so touching in normal people. They really have a beauty,” she says. “I feel that they need light. They need to be seen. They need to be listened to.”

The Belgian-born director started her career as a still photographer in Paris before moving into film in 1955. “I made a very radical film, a very daring film. I never thought I didn’t have the right,” says Varda about finding her own unique expression from the start, intercutting the story of a strained young couple with the daily struggles of the locals in a small fishing village.

Though that film, “La Pointe Courte,” has been adopted by cinephiles as the film that inspired the French New Wave movement, it made little money and it took seven years until Varda made her next film, “Cleo From 5 to 7”, which put her in the same category as French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and her late husband, Jacques Demy.

Throughout her career, Varda has moved effortlessly between fiction, documentaries, short films and art installations. Though there are familiar elements to her works, the director sees each medium as a different beast. “When I do a fiction, even about normal people, I write a screenplay. I have my ideas. I organize dialogue. Fiction is my film,” she says. “But when I do documentary, I am at the service of the people I film.”

When it comes to her honorary award, the director admits she was surprised to find out she was even on the Academy’s radar. “I never thought that people of Hollywood would like my work,” she says.

The Oscar is long overdue, says Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey. “She really is the legacy of the French New Wave. She might not like to hear that because she is active, alive and a vital filmmaker. But she’s also the living legacy of that history.”

The 89-year-old will accept the accolade as encouragement to remain curious. “I really love making films,” says Varda. “I’m blessed to be working in the world of cinema and art. It makes my life.”

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