Category Archives: USIA

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 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.

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.

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.

the march 3

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.

I believe James Blue would give the same answer.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem were screened at the Northwest Film Center on April 25, 2014 as part of UO’s 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.

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:

Edward_r_murrow_challenge_of_ideas_screenshot_2

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:

joseph-kennedy-sr-john-f-kennedy-everett

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.).

the march 3

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.