Category Archives: Kenya Boran

What Do Pictures Want: Oregon Artists In Diaspora, 1972

“Analysis shows that a relation (always social) determines its terms, and not the reverse, and that each individual is a locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of such relational determinations interact.” Michel de Certeau

Analysis of Oregon film history shows that the incoherent plurality of relational determinations occasionally recedes to reveal unexpected unity.

For example, the collective decision far-flung Oregon filmmakers made in 1972 to undertake and/or interrogate and/or horse around with anthropology.

david-macdougall-james-blue

Kenya Boran (shot in 1972/completed 1974), dir. by James Blue & David MacDougall in Kenya. (Blue in headphones.)

adventures

Adventures Of A Brown Man In Search Of Civilization (1972) dir. by James Ivory in London. (Ivory in headphones.)

13235sav

Savages (1972), dir. by James Ivory in Tarrytown. (Actors in mudface.)

Harry-Smith-mahagonny-film

Mahagonny (shot 1970-1972, completed 1980), dir. by Harry Smith in Manhattan. (Image as ritual.)

Bonus 1972 Oregon film:

drugs

Drugs: Killers Or Dillers (1972), dir. by Tim Smith & Matt Groening in Portland. (Groening in ferns.)

If I was on Twitter, I would tag this post #crosscultural #transnational #transcultural #transmodernity #postmodernity #altermodernity #postcolonial #neocolonial #decolonial #pluriversal #borderstudies #migratoryaesthetics #whatdoimageswant

We need to reckon with, not just the meaning of images, but with their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy. We need to account for not just the powerfulness of images, but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection. We need, in other words, to grasp both sides of the paradox of the image: that it is alive – but also dead; powerful – but also weak; meaningful – but also meaningless.

W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images

—————————————————————————————————————

Films of Harry Smith, James Ivory, James Blue and Homer Groening, the senior member of the two generation Groening dynasty, will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre during the upcoming Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series.

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

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.

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 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.

—————————————————————————————————————

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.

How To Read James Blue

Where did James Blue come from? Here are some way stations I visited on my own journey to understand his work.

1630

John Winthrop’s City On A Hill

Winthrop_John_CityUponHillSpeech1630-1

“for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world…”

Winthrop’s concerns prefigure those of public diplomacy, the arm of filmmaking which gave James Blue his professional start, first in Algeria and then in the US.

1789

William Blake’s Little Black Boy

LittleBoy2460

My mother bore me in the southern wild/And I am black, but O! my soul is white. The ironies and double meanings of this poem, which, tellingly, Blake vacillated between placing among his Songs Of Innocence or among his Songs Of Experience, are essential to the understanding of Kenya Boran, the ethnographic film which documents the learning curve of James Blue and David MacDougall as they discover how little they understand about the impact of the 20th century on the Boran people in Kenya.

1854

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Walden_Thoreau

“Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs”. John Greenleaf Whittier

Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond in 1844, doubling down on locavore everything, just as the Oregon Trail was getting underway.

1874

Joaquin Miller’s Unwritten History: Life Among The Modocs

joaquin_miller

Joaquin Miller arrived in Oregon in a covered wagon. He dedicated his most famous book, Unwritten History: Life Among the Modocs, “To the Red Men of America”. Like Blue, Miller went to college in Eugene. Like Blue, his career began overseas.

1930

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail 

BigTrailStillBaja

“We can’t turn back. We’re blazing a trail which started in England!” Raoul Walsh made his 70mm Oregon Trail epic in 1930, the year James Blue was born.

1935

H. L. Davis’ The Honey and the Horn

220px-HoneyInTheHorn

Two orphaned lovers keep secrets from each other in the barren anti-Eden of Oregon’s sagebrush interior, in H. L. Davis’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

1945

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City

rome_open_city_2

Non-professional actors + war ravaged city + illegal production, all elements which reemerge in James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice.  Blue might have seen Rossellini’s masterpiece at the Guild Theater in Portland.

James Ivory told me he remembered traveling to Portland from Eugene to see films at the Guild. That’s a two hour drive, four hours round trip!

1947

Carl Barks’ Only A Poor Old Man

Scrooge0001

Richard Blue told me James Blue and his mother fought a running battle over James’ love of comic books. Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all the comic books in which his irascible miser duck appeared, was born and raised in Oregon.

1952

Anthony Mann’s Bend Of The River

bend river - sneer finally

Arthur Kennedy plays the role of the snake in Anthony Mann’s despoiled Eden. The long list of 1950s Oregon Westerns includes Bend Of The River, shot on Mt. Hood, and James Blues’ 16mm Silver Spur, shot in his parents’ NE Portland backyard.

1955

Thomas Vaughan’s The Last Salmon Ceremony

The vitality of this Native American community testifies to the Pacific Northwest pluriverse in 1955.

1962

Tom McCall’s Pollution In Paradise

pollution-in-paradise-1962

Oregon elected Tom McCall governor five years later.

1962

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

One-Flew-Cuckoos-Nest-Kesey

“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits….”

Kesey’s first novel begins with these words. Chief Bromden, the mute mental patient whose interior monologue narrates Cuckoo’s Nest, is half Native American and half European American.

1962

James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice

James Blue dedicated The Olive Trees Of Justice to the people of Algiers.

1963

The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie & Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Louie Louie

6a010536b86d36970c017d429565ae970c-800wi

raiders-louie-louie-45_thumb

Lead singer Mark Lindsay remembered Paul Revere and the Raiders as a “bunch of white-bread kids doing their best to sound black”. The Raiders and The Kingsmen covered Richard Berry’s faux Jamaican ballad within a week of each other at a recording studio in downtown Portland.

1963

James Blue’s The March

On the opposite side of the social justice universe, James Blue documented Marian Anderson commanding the hushed attention of 200,000 demonstrators with the spiritual “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” just before Martin Luther King Jr preached the sermon of his lifetime “I have a dream.”

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

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.