Category Archives: Gill Dennis

The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962)

Recoiling from the approaching death of his father, the reduced economic circumstances of his family, and the chaos of a city at war, Jean, the son of a French colonialist, retreats to memories of the years he spent growing up on the family farm on the Mitidja plain outside Algiers. One childhood friend, Said, is now a revolutionary. Another, Boralfa, is his mother’s kitchen servant. At his father’s funeral, Jean argues with Boralfa over the future of Algeria, but refuses to relinquish his childhood bonds, or his identity as an Algerian.

James Blue made The Olive Trees Of Justice as a collaboration. Jean Pélégri, the author of the semi autobiographical novel on which the film was based, co-wrote the screenplay and plays the dying French colonialist, a character based on his own father. The closest thing to a professional actor in Blue’s cast, Pélégri had recently played the role of the Inspector in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.

The rest of the actors were non professionals. All Algerian. James Blue cast shrewdly, choosing the son of a colonialist to play the son of a colonialist, the mother of a friend to play a mother, and three young Algerian boys to play, basically, themselves. Shot entirely on location, the war torn urban landscape of Algiers is another important character in the film.

Maurice Jarre shoehorned the score for The Olive Trees Of Justice into a year which saw him composing five (5) film scores, including Lawrence Of Arabia.

Shot under pretext it was about the wine industry, smuggled out of Algeria and edited in France, James Blue showed The Olive Trees Of Justice out of competition at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Critics Prize. It was his first feature.

Here’s the young artist in New York, just before his triumph:

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And a confession: I like Olive Trees because it does not have James Blue voiceover.

The narrator is not omniscient. He is guilty, nostalgic, self loathing, resentful, respectful, and open to personal transformation. He is an adult child, wandering the streets looking for – what? For Said? For some idea of how to resolve the conflict between what he knows he should do and what he fears he will do? Throughout the film, he wears the mournful expression of someone who has been asked to stand in a corner.

His movements through Algiers are shot newsreel style, allowing us to see, in real time, on the real sidewalks and streets, the volatile mix of European and Arab culture constantly ready to explode. By contrast, the scenes of his remembered childhood on his father’s farm are shot as classic Hollywood cinema. Lyrical, orderly, concise. The dilemma is not just that Jean wants to live in the past. He wants to live in a movie.

But Jean’s memories, however nostalgic, also contain the seeds of war. The holy man who tends the graves of departed saints curses Jean’s father for not respecting Muslim religious tradition. The same holy man, when Jean’s father is threatened by a group of hungry Arab men, appears and disperses the crowd. He defies categorization, and cannot be reconciled into European worldview. Jean grew up learning both cultures. He watches the holy man celebrate Muslim holy days, and he watches his father set off fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. He speaks Arabic and he speaks French. There is no space in Algiers which is off limits to him. Yet all he wants is to flee.

James Blue, in interview:

Pélégri and I wanted to show the complexity of any such situation; that it can’t be reduced to villainous people and good people – the good guys and the bad guys. These people were in the grasp of a colonial system which was bad. How can a past, which seems so happy, produce this present which is in such chaotic form?

The Olive Trees Of Justice, James Blue’s first narrative feature, was also his last. From this point on, all his work would be in documentary. Yet a theme he returned to throughout his career – that of working with a community to express itself on film – is in full display in this, his least characteristic work.

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One of the few surviving 16mm prints of The Olive Trees Of Justice was screened on February 12, 2014 at the Schnitzer Museum of Art as part of the University of Oregon’s James Blue Tribute.

That same fragile print was screened at the Hollywood Theatre on Oct. 11, 2014 as part of the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series. Richard Blue, James Blue’s brother, and James Dormeyer, Blue’s classmate at IDHEC, introduced the film. Blue’s former student and longtime colleague Gill Dennis joined them afterwards for a panel discussion.

In the audience was Sheldon Renan, who served with James Blue on the NEA’s first media funding panel in 1970, and Brooke Jacobson, who worked with Blue on an NEA survey of regional film resources in the mid 1970s.

Larry Bissett and James Ivory, two of Blue’s University of Oregon classmates, traveled to the screening from Seattle and New York, respectively.

James Ivory rose from his seat during the discussion which followed the film to describe his wonder at Olive Trees‘ visual elegance and unsentimental approach to story. This film, he said, is so French.

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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, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem (1968)

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem is the final film James Blue made for the United States Information Agency (USIA). Shot all over the globe, it was Oscar nominated for Best Documentary in 1969.

James Blue’s USIA period (1962-1968) followed after his breakthrough first feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962), his only non-documentary film. While at USIA, he made The March (1963), considered to be the definitive film document of the historic March On Washington. After USIA, he continued working within the documentary format, but began pushing against the boundaries of genre, and experimenting with using documentary to democratize media.

From Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers: 1973 – 1990.

His last documentary, A Few Notes On Our Food Problem (1968), on the improvement of world wide agricultural production, was Blue’s first color film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1969, was awarded the CINE (Council on International Non-Theatrical Events) “Golden Eagle” and the prize for Best Documentary, Best Color Cinematography at the 11th International Film Festival Vancouver.

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem was made for international distribution only, as were all USIA films. It was not seen by American audiences. This was true for The March, and all the films James Blue made while working for USIA.

This provides partial explanation of why James Blue’s filmography has been unusually inaccessible. His first films, made in Algeria, were in French. His public diplomacy USIA films were not intended for, and in fact were expressly forbidden to, American audiences. The third stage of his career, when he was based in Texas while teaching at Rice Media Center and in Buffalo while teaching at SUNY Buffalo, was the first period of his artistic life during which he focused on making films to be seen within his own country. By this time, he had chosen the goal of using film as a tool for community organizing. He was interested making regional films for regional impact. So once again, his audience was circumscribed.

Through all three periods of his filmmaking, his artistic vision remained consistent. The opening credits for his first feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962), state that it was made with the help of “the men and women of Algeria”. For his last two films, made for Houston television, he solicited input from the men and women of Houston. In A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, created during a midpoint in his career, the voices and viewpoints James Blue collects are of scientists, farmers and citizens around the world.

Credits for A New Notes On Our Food Problem:

Directed by James Blue and Stevan Larner.

Written by James Blue and Gill Dennis.

Narrated by James Blue.

Cinematography by Stevan Larner.

Edited by Lee Alexander and Meyer Odze.

Produced by United States Information Agency.

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You can see A Few Notes On Our Food Problem as part of the James Blue Tribute:

At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Dennis Gill, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.

Tickets can be purchased here.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon 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.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Song Of Ourselves: Who Made The March


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Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the twin architects of the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, were both artists. Bayard Rustin was a singer.

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Before devoting his life to organizing labor and to the Civil Rights movement, A. Philip Randolph was an Shakespearean actor.

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The background these two leaders had in the performing arts matches up well with the background of the man who documented the March they created and led. James Blue was an actor. His undergraduate degree was in theater.

All three men were prepared to see the events on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963 as theater. James Blue makes sure we understand that the 200,000 Americans there that day did not just passively watch, but instead actively co-created the “spectacle”, as Life magazine called it. They shouted, clapped, held hands and, most of all, sang. The March looks like a newsreel, but it sounds like a musical.

Just as Robert Altman’s Nashville would do twenty years later, The March presents American political life as a contest fought on the stage of pop culture as much as in the voting booth.

Is there a line between these two spheres?

Is it a “black thing” to collapse pop culture and politics?

You tell me.

Here’s James Blue’s boss at USIA:

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George Stevens, Jr, (above left) was fourth generation show business. His father, Oscar winning director George Stevens (above right), was active in the founding of the NEA. George Stevens, Jr. recruited James Blue for USIA at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, after seeing The Olive Trees Of Justice.

Here’s George Stevens, Jr.’s boss at USIA:

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Edward R. Murrow (like Blue, from the Pacific Northwest) became famous during WWII for his ability to deliver the news under crisis conditions. James Blue likely heard his popular Hear It Now radio program, a spin off of one of the best selling Columbia records in 1948, the historically themed You Can Hear It Now. Hard to believe that we once had best selling history records!

Here’s Edward R. Murrow’s boss at USIA:

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President John F. Kennedy’s tie to America pop culture was very straight forward. His father, Joseph Kennedy (above left) had a brief, intensely lucrative tour of duty in the movie business in the late 1920’s. The money he made putting together, and then selling, RKO Pictures helped send his son to the White House. While there, John F. Kennedy tapped newsman Edward R. Murrow to head USIA. Murrow hired George Stevens, Jr., and Stevens hired James Blue.

James Blue was given the assignment to make a film about race in America. He chose instead to make a film about the March. (Ed. note: Since writing this I learned from Christina Kovac it was George Stevens, Jr. who made the decision to film the March. Nevertheless, James Blue’s USIA memo, in which he argues that racial tension in America was caused by white racism, not black poverty, reveals that Stevens’ decision matches up with his own interests.).

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I saw The March on November 13, 2013 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene as part of the James Blue Tribute. It was introduced by Gerald O’Grady, longtime colleague of James Blue. Sheldon Renan, who served on the same NEA media funding panel in the early 1970s as James Blue, was in the audience.

You can see The March in Portland.

At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Gill Dennis, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.

Tickets can be purchased here.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon 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.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.