Recoiling from the approaching death of his father, the reduced economic circumstances of his family, and the chaos of civil 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:
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 Blue Alliance, 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 Alliance.