Category Archives: Jean Pelegri

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:

1555547_10201516822664861_856338813_n

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.

=================================================================

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.

================================================================

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.

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.

1859_Nov_Dec_James_Blue_5

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.