Category Archives: Houston

Kenya Boran (1974)

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.

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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 The 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.

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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.

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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.

Understanding Blue: Politics, Pluraversality, and the Muse of Form

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks never met James Blue, but she is a member of the pluriverse he loved.

She lives in Utopia (true!). I saw her on the internet, where I also saw this:

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Both videos are examples of regional film.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks addressed her remarks to a live audience in Australia. Toni and Candace first deployed their withering lack of respect for logic in a no-budget web series, Thunder Ant, shot in Portland, not far from the house where James Blue grew up.

Blue believed that regional film = democratized media = increased diversity of voices being heard. As a member of the NEA’s first media funding panel, he voted to fund a network of regional film centers, all four of which still exist today. One of them is the Northwest Film Center, where The  March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem screened on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute.

Blue believed stories could change things. He was fascinated by the exercise of power which came with access to a camera, and never resolved his ambivalence about his privilege as a gifted filmmaker. His awareness of privilege fueled his activism as an educator. It drove him to leave Hollywood. It inspired him to place cameras in the hands of his subjects. He incorporated it into his work.

Was James Blue a political filmmaker?

In the discussion which followed the screening, Brooke Jacobson, an NEA colleague of James Blue, was startled to hear the audience conclude he was not.

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. Wendell Berry

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Blue shot Who Killed The Fourth Ward?  on 8mm with a two person crew for community television. By contrast, he shot The March, fourteen years earlier, on 35mm with seven two person Hearst Metrotone newsreel crews and the mandate of the President.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, made by Blue for USIA and USIAD respectively, deliver a sense of the world as troubled but benign. In Who Killed The Fourth Ward? and The Invisible City, made for KUHT community television, that surety is gone. In them, Blue, following a new muse of form, relinquishes his duties as omniscient, unseen narrator, and enters the film as a participant. He is asking questions, and bringing along a camera to make sure he gets answers. It is easy to imagine if the same Northwest Film Center audience had seen those two later documentaries, they would have had no trouble labeling Blue a political filmmaker.

But was Blue, in Houston, a newly political filmmaker?

The full title of the March On Washington was March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. Employment, voting rights, the elimination of Jim Crow – these are not minor demands. The organizers had been preparing for this event for decades. In Blue’s voice over narration, he speaks about the potential for violence, and shows the steps the organizers were taking to keep control of the crowd. Feed people, use walkie talkies, maintain a chain of command.

Blue understood what could happen if thousands of citizens squared off against police. He knew what it was like to live in a world where violence had overtaken the civic order. He had directly experienced the war behind the recent Paris Massacre. Disaster, for Blue, was within the realm of the possible.

The narrative Blue chose for his coverage of the March focused on the arriving marchers. It focused on the leadership, including young black men, who, at that time, were never seen in media as being calm, purposeful and in charge, but in Blue’s film are shown to be just that. They were entrusted with keeping safe the 200,000 Americans who had arrived to exercise their constitutional right to assembly. Blue leaves out guest speakers Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte and shows us the politically engaged nobodies who came to walk, talk, listen, sing, and cool their feet in the reflecting pool. He photographs them as if they are a miracle, because to him, perhaps, they are.

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They are the pluriverse he has come to recognize as valuable.

The March is about them.

Is that political?

For perspective, James Ivory, James Blue’s friend and near exact contemporary, when asked which of his own films he thought was most political, retorted that they all were, or at least he hoped they are all were.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem were screened at the Northwest Film Center on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute. Brooke Jacobson, co-founder of the Northwest Film Center, was in the audience.

So was Sheldon Renan, the author of the proposal that the NEA fund a network of four regional film centers, of which the Northwest Film Center was one. Sheldon Renan, Brooke Jacobson and James Blue all share two distinctions. They all came from Portland, and each one served as an advocate for regional film at the NEA.

Richard Blue, who advised James Blue on A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, and Gill Dennis, who wrote the voiceover narration for A Few Notes, participated in an onstage panel discussion following the screening as did Christina Kovac, who led the NARA restoration of The March, and Gerald O’Grady, a long time Blue colleague and friend, who is an historian of films of the Civil Rights Movement.

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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, organized by the University of Oregon.

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.

The Invisible City (1979)

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Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Godard’s collaborator on his most political films, came to teach in San Diego around the same time James Blue arrived in Houston. In an interview about his “live and let live” attitude towards doctrinaire Marxists, Gorin said “They don’t bother anybody. They are just over there teaching, but where is life?”

Where is life? could be the motto James Blue used to guide his life and career. He was following that compass when he went to Hollywood, and he was following it when he left. What he wanted wasn’t something the studios could help him with. He wanted to explore not just the power of storytelling, but the power of community created by the bond between storyteller and audience. He was interested in the implications of that power, who should wield it, who should be taught how to wield it. He was more interested, in 1979, in passing the talking stick around the circle than with holding his place as head man.

The Invisible City is the most difficult of James Blue’s films to write about. His most ambitious film, it is arguably the one made for the smallest audience. It has no script, or rather, he shares scriptwriting duties with the audience, eliciting feedback from each episode which he then incorporates as he goes along to the next. E pluribus unum. We, the viewers, can make television. We, the citizens, can change our city. James Blue brings everything he has: his skills as an artist, his belief in democracy, his formative brush with want as a child of the Depression, his curiosity about a new medium, video. He does this not as a pitch man or performer, but as a scientist who has set up an experiment, and is intently observing the results. Will this work?

In the resulting five hour/five episode interactive public television documentary, James Blue and Adele Santos take us on a tour of a bifurcated city growing like a weed. Petroleum politics had raised oil prices, and Houston was an oil town. Skyscrapers going up, unemployment going down. One thousand new residents were arriving per week. But the filmmakers see two cities. Visible Houston, which boasted that it had no income tax and no state tax, was inhabited by high wage earning, well educated citizens. Invisible Houston, which complained that the most basic city services did not exist, was inhabited by low wage earning, poorly educated citizens. Both categories of citizenry had jobs, thanks to the boom, but a hard working resident of the invisible Houston could be living in a car, or a tin shed, or a house better suited to a wrecking ball.

Blue shows us images of deteriorating housing, but, as before, the images which interest him most are the faces of the people. He shows us the bureaucrats behind their desks, the experts with their statistics, and he shows us the people living in sheds or in cars. The mother with four children who was told an apartment flooded with water was the only one within her price range. The social worker, fighting to contain her anger, who was witness to the mother’s distress and helplessness. In Who Killed The Fourth Ward?, Blue presented himself as an isolated guerrilla media maker. This time he armors up and presents himself as an academic working with NEH money and in concert with a team of social scientists and grad students. Yes, the poor are always with us, but shouldn’t they have someplace to live? In The Invisible City, James Blue continues to stitch together a vision of television as town hall.

Ed Hugetz remembers the first time he heard Blue speak at Rice University. First, we are going to build an audience, he told a handful of students, scattered throughout an otherwise empty auditorium. Then, we are going to become filmmakers. I am struck that James Blue prioritized building an audience so highly. It confirms what we see throughout The Invisible City. He is not trying to make a film. He is trying to make a community. To do this, he reverse engineered  the entire filmmaking process. He includes his subjects as collaborators. He includes himself/reveals himself on camera. He chooses public television over theatrical release. He chooses video over film. He tells us what his plan is, and asks the KUHT television audience, after each one hour episode, to contact the station with feedback about where the story should next go. He shares his power as writer-director-producer as elaborately, flamboyantly and comprehensively as possible.

The Invisible City was produced at the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), founded by James Blue in 1977.  SWAMP still exists today.  Its mission statement incorporates the lens of plurality which Blue and Santos used in The Invisible City. “The Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) promotes the creation and appreciation of film, video, and new media as art forms of a multicultural community.”

James Blue did not know The Invisible City would be his last film. While he was making it, he was recruited by the Center For Media Study at SUNY Buffalo to start a documentary program there. He was planning to make a film about Buffalo using the same approach as The Invisible City when he died of a swiftly moving stomach cancer on June 14, 1980.

Adele Santos, the co-creator of The Invisible City, was teaching at Rice University when she approached James Blue with the idea to examine Houston’s housing crisis in a film. Recently retired from her position as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, Santos continues to teach. Her firm, Santos Prescott and Associates, is based in San Francisco.

I saw the fifth, culminating, episode of The Invisible City on March 13, 2014 in the Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, as part of the James Blue Tribute. Brian Huberman and  Ed Hugetz, colleagues of James Blue during his Houston years, opened the evening with an introduction via Skype.

Coming up next:

At 7:00 PM on April 23, 2014 in Eugene, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, reknowned ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall will introduce Kenya Boran, which he co-directed with James Blue in 1972. The screening is free.

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.

Who Killed the Fourth Ward? (1977)

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Who Killed the Fourth Ward?: A Non Fiction Mystery In Three Parts begins with James Blue interrogating himself, in voiceover narration, as he drives into a low income inner city neighborhood threatened by the rapid expansion of Houston’s skyscraper filled downtown. What am I doing, he asks, and why am I doing it. His self doubt stands in contrast to his appearance of authority: his grey hair, worry lines, and faint air of constant, quiet concern. Blue hadn’t appeared in his previous films, but you always felt his restless, questing presence from behind the camera. In Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, we see him both as a cinema verite filmmaker revealing himself to the audience as part of his narrative strategy, and as an experienced teacher and mentor, secure enough in his methods to allow the young cubs, Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz, his crew, climb all over him and worry him with their baby teeth.

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As the title reveals, the film is framed as an interrogation. Blue, Huberman, and Hugetz take turns posing questions to Houston residents, and to each other. Blue says he wants to answer the question “who is responsible for the death of this inner city neighborhood?”, but we see he is as interested in the answer to the question “what will happen if we approach a total stranger with a microphone?” What will happen if we bring an African American journalist into the office of a white city bureaucrat? What will happen if we let all members of the community tell their story? His goal is not to find answers. His goal is to see what happens when you let the questions out.

Hugetz remembered Blue saying, “This is going to be an ugly film.” Shot on 8mm, with fuzzy images and terrible sound, he was right. This is not the film you expect as a teaching vehicle.  In the discussion following the screening, an audience member questioned Blue’s studied innocence, expressing doubt that anyone would expect to get honest answers from the city fathers about the remorseless erosion of a vulnerable neighborhood. Richard Herskowitz, the curator of the James Blue Tribute, reminded us that James Blue was a trained actor. This is not journalism, this is theater.  Blue is enacting community. He is revealing politics as theater.

Does Blue believe the bureaucrat sitting behind a desk? Does he believe the Fourth Ward resident who describes his neighborhood as a checkerboard of churches and bars? He either believes all of them, or none of them. The third possibility is that he is not interested in serving as judge.

The consensus within the audience was that whatever else James Blue might be doing in Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, he was not engaged in polemic.  I disagree. I believe he adopted a posture of helplessness as a polemic against the dominant discourse, which is that holding a camera confers power. He assumed the position of powerlessness deliberately, not only to examine the self justifying illusions which comfort the city fathers, but to confront our own. This could be done only at this point in his career, after earning his awards and his worry lines. In this public television documentary, shot on equipment designed for home movies, James Blue picked up a camera not to create beauty, or to find truth, but to create community.

“There used to be just one way. There was one way you could do things. There were people who protected it like a copyright, a secret cult only for the initiated. That’s why I don’t regret making BREATHLESS and blowing that all apart.” Jean Luc Godard, in interview

We meet Blue in the driver’s seat, asking questions and showing vulnerability. He remains there, metaphorically, throughout the film. He pointedly maintains his status as citizen, that is, as a person plagued with doubts and uncertainties, throughout, in order to model his belief in the citizen filmmaker.  He was subverting cinema as escapism, as all documentarians do, but he was going a step further and also subverting our expectation that documentary filmmaking is an expression of power. Does using a camera confer insight? He challenges this expectation. He defies it. What if,  instead of using the camera as some kind of sheriff’s badge, or search warrant, to exercise or impose narrative power, we use it as a searchlight. To see things.

“There is a point beyond which training and practice cannot take you.  Neami, the superlative fourteenth century Noh drama playwright and director who was also a Zen priest, spoke of this moment as “surprise”. This is the surprise of discovering oneself needing no self, one with the work, moving in disciplined ease and grace…At this point one can be free, with the workand from the work.” Gary Snyder, in On The Path, Off The Trail

This moment of surprise and freedom is what I see in the blurry 8mm images of Who Killed the Fourth Ward?  James Blue is too wily and astute an artist to be confined to his own mission statement, or to his own onscreen persona.  He is exercising more power than he is letting on. He was choosing to be non-authoritative and low budget for the same reasons as Bill Viola chooses to use slow motion, and Nam June Paik chooses to use more than one television.  It was perfect for what he wanted to do.

James Blue appears to be interrogating Houston’s power structure, but what he is really doing is interrogating our understanding of cinema. He is critiquing the perception that movies are all about the director, and instead is reframing them as the glue which binds together the audience. Why are you sitting on your butt out there in the dark?, he says. You could do this. I could be you. I am you. He is using his access to power, the whole structure of grant supported filmmaking, the authority of his achievements, the entry his white skin and professional identity confer upon him, to critique his access to power. He departed Hollywood, and is returning to the tribe with a gift, but part of his gift to the tribe is to refuse to be locked into what the tribe thinks he should be doing. 

I doubt the true purpose of the world’s first three hour television documentary shot on 8mm film is to answer the question it purportedly raises. It’s more: how do I do this? How do I use what I know about filmmaking to engage this community in dialogue and self awareness?

In his next film, The Invisible City,  James Blue reassumes directorial authority. He begins relying on video, and takes a more purposeful direction. But Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, made in 1977, the same year he founded the Southwest Alternate Media Project, is an authentically open ended exploration of the potential of regional filmmaking.

Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz, the crew members who joined James Blue on his journey into the Fourth Ward, introduced the screening in Eugene via Skype.  They were sitting in Huberman’s office at the Rice University, where Huberman is associate professor of film in the Visual and Dramatic Arts department. Both Brian Huberman, and Ed Hugetz, who is now the Associate Vice President for Planning for the University of Houston, have had long and active careers as regional filmmakers.

Coming up next:

The next film in the James Blue Tribute retrospective will be screened on April 23, 2014, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. David MacDougall, who partnered with James Blue to direct Kenya Boran (1974), will be present to introduce that film. Admission is free! 7:00 PM.

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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.

Who’s James Blue?

There is no book about James Blue. Most of what I have learned about him comes from his films, his print interviews, and from people who knew him.

Here’s where I was in October 2012:

James Blue (1930-1980) grew up in Portland. He studied speech and theater at University of Oregon, graduating in 1953. After some years of military service, he entered film school in Paris where he was influenced by Jean Rouch. (Anne’s  note: now I am not sure this is true – not sure if he studied with Rouch or not) Although he first distinguished himself by winning the Critics Prize at Cannes for The Olive Trees Of Justice, a feature length narrative film, he spent the rest of his life making socially engaged documentaries.

Blue was a man of firsts. First Oregon director to go to Cannes, and the first to receive an Oscar nomination. First person ever to receive Ford Foundation funding for a film project. He helped start the Center for Advanced Film Studies at American Film Institute. The documentary programs at Rice University and at the Center for Media Study in Buffalo were both established by him. He served on the 1972 NEA media funding panel which launched the first network of regional film centers, as proposed by Sheldon Renan. Northwest Film Center is the result of that NEA initiative.

Two years later, I see how much this thumbnail portrait leaves out. Who was this man?

All personal accounts are in agreement that there was very little separation between Blue’s professional life and his personal life. His friends became his colleagues. His obsessions became his films. Reading a fuller list of his accomplishments,  you begin to understand that every minute of his day was involved in some kind of work, but work that he loved. He held down two parallel careers, as a filmmaker and as a film educator, and excelled in both.

By writing in more depth about each of his films, I hope to discover exactly what I think about this mysterious, forgotten, and influential American filmmaker from my hometown.

Who was James Blue? What impact did he have?

Gentlemen, start your engines.

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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.