When James Fox, the head of University of Oregon’s Special Collections, first looked over James Blue’s filmography, he immediately had a question. “What is up with the Texas docs, Anne?!” Why did Blue choose to work in public television at the peak of his reknown?
Nearly everything about James Blue’s career is unpredictable.
If you had to pick one film to typify the contradictions in his career, Kenya Boran, the hour long ethnographic film he co-directed with David MacDougall might be a leading contender. Commissioned by American Universities Field Staff, Kenya Boran was funded by the National Science Foundation. For an Oscar nominated filmmaker, this is as far outside Hollywood as you can get and still stay on this planet.
My favorite moment in Kenya Boran is when young Peter Boru responds to a question about the meaning behind a male tribal ritual. Why do they do that? Why do they dress in ceremonial costume, paint their faces, dance themselves into ecstatic trances, and segregate themselves from the group? Peter is incredulous that the filmmakers need to ask. They are friends, he explains. They love each other. Like you do, he adds.
Who decides who knows what about who?
We watch Peter in the classroom, being told he should aspire to become a lion instead of a frog. We see him being taught to throw a spear. His attention wanders. He is as unimpressed with his father’s spear throwing as he is by the filmmakers’ clueless questions of “why?” Peter’s existential dilemma becomes clear. He can’t acquire the skills needed for the traditional life of herding cattle and at the same time attend school. His family sends him to school. Is he being ruined by the classroom, or saved?
James Blue is in familiar territory here, as four of his USIA films focused on Third World development. But Kenya Boran was not made by the USIA. It is not an act of public diplomacy. Although similarly preoccupied with asymmetries of ignorance/knowledge, it comes at the question from a slightly different angle.
It asks “whose knowledge? whose ignorance?”
Blue’s gift as an artist was the ability to find the story which reveals the community’s heart. Will the village at Rincon Santo get a school? (Yes,they will.) Will the blind child receive his sight? (Yes, he does.) Will 200,000 Americans march to the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument without incident? (Yes, they will.) But in Kenya Boran, the question “what does the future hold for Peter Boru?” is not matched with an answer. Children in Blue’s previous films illustrate the theme of preparing for the future but Peter Boru, with his cool, skeptical, self possession, cannot be deployed for that purpose. The very idea of preparing for the future explodes in our face, when, at the end, the three college educated Kenyans who worked on the film as translators explain to the camera that they cannot find jobs.
The theme of knowledge vs. false knowledge dominates the very first discussion we overhear, as the men of the community systematically dismantle the logic behind the Kenyan government’s decision to encourage smaller families. We follow the flow of ideas in subtitles while we hear the conversation unfold in Swahili. David and Judith MacDougall pioneered the practice of subtitling ethnographic films, and I witnessed its benefit: In the discussion following the James Blue Tribute screening at the Schnitzer Cinema, an audience member commented that the Boran men observed a cultural practice of repeating the last phrase of the last sentence spoken by their conversational partner before offering their own response. (Someone commented “Active listening!” No one said “Wisdom!”, although we probably were all thinking it.) The audience member who noticed the conversational repetition did not understand or speak Swahili. Her observation was only possible because the soundtrack did not bury the original conversation under a filmmaker’s voice over narration.
The story within the story of Kenya Boran is that it documents both life among the Boran, and James Blue’s release from story driven documentary filmmaking. David MacDougall had made two ethnographic films before he traveled with James Blue to spend two months shooting the daily life of a pastorialist tribe adjusting to change in Kenya. He uses Kenya Boran to teach Blue, his one time teacher, a form of filmmaking which actively avoids control of all the elements which confer narrative power.
The fiction film creates a multileveled web in which its characters are contained and seen to struggle. The documentary film attempts to contain the historical person through a parallel set of strategies, but importantly also by allowing us to glimpse the failure of those strategies – by creating, as Nichols puts it, “the subjective experience of excess, the discovery… of a magnitude of existence beyond containment”. It thus perversely denies what it offers. David MacDougall
Trying on the ethnographer’s hat, for James Blue, meant foregoing use of his greatest strengths. Kenya Boran is a haiku. It achieves its quality of spaciousness (the glimpse of failure of strategies created to contain) by observing strict formal conventions which, by limiting choices, enforce simplicity. Refined, sophisticated, and spare, the architecture of a haiku/ethnographic film is visible to fellow practitioners, while the work itself is accessible to anyone and everyone. Its minimalism does not dilute, but rather accentuates, its impact.
In Kenya Boran, we see Blue learning how to use the camera, not as a paintbrush creating beauty, as he has in the past, or an x ray machine exposing social injustice, as he will in the future, but as a seismograph, registering shifts in perception. Blue liked collaboration. He worked closely with Jean Pélégri on The Olive Trees Of Justice, and with George Stevens, Jr. at USIA. He co-directed A Few Notes On Our Food Problem with Stevan Larner, and The Invisible City with Adele Santos. I see his creative partnership with David MacDougall on Kenya Boran as one of the most influential of all his duets.
After this, no turning back. After he and MacDougall finished Kenya Boran in Houston, Blue began Who Killed Fourth Ward?, a multi episode participatory documentary designed for public television. Without the interlude in ethnographic film, I very much doubt he would have made the transition to experimental doc. It is fitting that Richard Herskowitz programmed Kenya Boran as the last film in James Blue Tribute screening series, since it was the last project James Blue made entirely on film.
Kenya Boran is available for purchase here.
I saw Kenya Boran on April 23, 2014 at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, as part of the James Blue Tribute organized by the University of Oregon. David MacDougall, the co-director of Kenya Boran, introduced the film.
More information about David MacDougall can be found here.
Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to document her own learning curve as she attends the 2014 James Blue Tribute.
Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.