Discovering James Blue

Olive Trees of Justice


Discovering James Blue

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

An introduction to the deeply engagé filmmaker and his pioneering works.

Our series Citizen Blue screens at Metrograph through January 27 and At Home through February 3.

James Blue

Citizen Blue (2017)

“Film can be an art, yes. But it also covers a much wider domain, from social sciences to the various technologies. It is a form of symbolizing and communication which cuts across all the disciplines in life.”—James Blue

James Blue wrote these words in 1976, before embarking on a set of projects for public-access television that would turn out to be his final works. It’s a credo that guided the trajectory of his filmmaking, and the increasing emphasis on political engagement and impact might in part explain why the Tulsa native isn’t a more prominent figure today. Rarely discussed outside of scholarly circles, most of his films are difficult to come by; to write this piece I largely had to rely on files of terrible quality that are floating around online. Discovering the sheer breadth of his work—including his extensive research and writing on cinema—introduced me to a major filmmaker and thinker, and at the same time highlighted the sad irony of his relative obscurity, one shared by many documentarians who commit themselves to rendering visible the invisible.

Take Paris à l’aube (1957), the lovely short that Blue co-directed with Johan van der Keuken while they were studying at Paris’s famed film school IDHEC (today called La Fémis). This nine-minute city symphony, which follows a man walking home at dawn in a montage that brings Paris out of its slumber to an enlivening jazz soundtrack, would seem to herald an avant-garde career. And although Blue did continue to use avant-garde aesthetics in his work, that he criticized the New York filmmaking scene of the early ’60s for being narcissistic—“it needs more restraint, a lot less exhibitionism”—is in keeping with his turn towards narrative-driven and more socially conscious cinema.

In 1960, Blue went to work for Studios Africa in Algeria, a private company that often took commissions from the French government—“a kind of Foreign Legion of Motion Pictures,” as he called it. The first film he shot there, Amal (1960), is a fictionalized documentary about soil erosion whose educational thrust and focus on children bring to mind Kiarostami’s Kanoon films. This was followed by a series of silent slapstick shorts, described by Blue as “Mack Sennett-type farces,” in which he attempted to deconstruct and learn Sennet’s technique in order to better understand how emotions are fabricated for dramatic effect. These extremes were then brought together in The Olive Trees of Justice (1962), Blue’s only fictional feature and his best-known film.

An adaptation of Jean Pélégri’s 1959 novel of the same name, The Olive Trees of Justice was shot in semi-clandestine conditions during the final and most turbulent stretch of the Algerian War. The small crew pretended to work on a documentary about wine grape harvesting, although word got out and the right-wing terrorists of the OAS reportedly set bombs in the film’s production office on five separate occasions. The story is of a young pied-noir who returns to Algiers from Paris because of the impending death of his father, a clear symbol for French-occupied Algeria (the father is played by Pélégri, who also co-wrote the script). While walking the city streets, past barricades and patrolling soldiers, he reminisces about his bucolic childhood growing up on the family’s vineyard in the Mitidja plain. The present-day sections are shot in a documentary style, with a handheld camera that often adopts a subjective POV, whereas the flashbacks are made up of carefully composed and distanced images. This mix of fact and fiction, chaotic present and idyllic past, reflects on the colonization of Algeria while mirroring the protagonist’s internal conflict about his homeland. Blue’s refusal to take sides finds expression in a humanism that owes a great deal to Italian neorealism, a debt underlined by the use of non-professional actors, real locations, and a penchant for long takes and measured camera movements reminiscent of the films of Rossellini.

From today’s vantage point, The Olive Trees of Justice offers a counter to Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), perhaps the two most prominent representations of, respectively, the pied-noir experience and the Algerian War. Camus’s famous opening sentence—“Mother died today”—is evoked by the film’s first spoken words, borrowed verbatim from Pélégri’s source text: “No, I did not imagine my father would die the following morning.” And unlike the shooting of an Arab, which seals Meursault’s fate in The Stranger, Blue’s comparably impassive protagonist is jolted out of his fatalism when he witnesses an Arab boy get run over by a car. The divergence between Blue’s film and The Battle of Algiers, released four years later, is exemplified by respective scenes involving a bomb hidden inside a handbag. Where Pontecorvo constructs a lengthy and elaborate sequence of escalating suspense, Blue presents a quotidian occurrence that he drains of all sensationalism, leaving only sadness.

The small crew pretended to work on a documentary about wine grape harvesting, although word got out and the right-wing terrorists of the OAS reportedly set bombs in the film’s production office on five separate occasions.

Although The Olive Trees of Justice was met with praise when it premiered in the inaugural edition of the Critics’ Week at Cannes, winning the prize of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Writers, it failed to find distribution. A victim of timing, with the war just over and its wounds much too fresh, the film was attacked by many on the left for being paternalistic, and by the right for giving an unjustly negative impression of the country under French rule. It largely disappeared from view until a re-release in France in 2004, and a new 4K restoration unveiled at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2021 should finally bring it wider attention.

After Algeria, Blue returned home and was employed by the United States Information Agency to produce documentaries about the country’s positive contributions to the world stage—essentially, propaganda. Concurrently, he took up a teaching position at UCLA and joined the editorial staff of the newly founded Film Comment, writing about direct cinema, cinéma vérité and the direction of non-actors, as well as interviewing leading practitioners. These lengthy interviews marked the beginning of a project that he would continue for the rest of his life, amassing a collection of some 75 names that reads like a roster of the era’s greatest film artists. Only a few of the conversations are online, but the others are well worth a trip to the library. Blue had a talent for eliciting profuse answers—when he prompts Richard Leacock about the potential ridicule of his subjects in Happy Mother’s Day (1963), Leacock’s response stretches across a page and a half—and his confrère’s perspective enabled discussions of remarkable insight, be it when defining authenticity with Albert and David Maysles, deconstructing Buster Keaton’s gags, or having Godard and Rossellini delineate their less-than-fully-ethical strategies for extracting performances from actors, both professional and not.

A Few Notes on our Food Problem

A Few Notes on our Food Problem (1968)

Perhaps stimulated by these critical activities, Blue’s own documentary practice grew more complex during his time at the USIA. Following a trilogy of poetic but politically naïve shorts about Alliance for Progress initiatives in Colombia—A Letter from Colombia, The School at Rincon Santo, and Evil Wind Out (all 1962)—he made The March (1963-64), about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963. Captured live by Blue’s team of a dozen cameras, who rode the buses into the city and walked together with the crowd, the film presents a chronological account of that day, culminating with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Its celebration of the peaceful protest manages to offer a stirring, overwhelmingly positive portrait of a moment in US history, while nevertheless denouncing white racism as foundationally American. Unsurprisingly, it landed Blue in a fair bit of trouble with his employer, the US government: Southern senators held hearings in an effort to ban the film, while President Johnson objected to the fact that his and Kennedy’s policies received no mention, calling it a “real difficult problem” that could jeopardize the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Eventually, The March was kept in distribution, albeit with the addition of a new introduction that underlines the government’s support of the civil rights movement.

By focusing on the rest of the world, Blue could be more overtly polemical in the Oscar-nominated essay film A Few Notes on Our Food Problem (1968). In the opening voice-over, he solemnly reads out statistics that forecast impending famine across the Global South, concluding with these sentences: “Two people are added to the population every second. From the time I say ‘go’ until the end of this film, 5,000 more people will be added to the Earth. What you’re going to see is happening now. Go.” The travelogue that follows, a mosaic of images shot in Taiwan, India, Kenya and Brazil, anticipates the similarly globetrotting, if more upsetting, films of Michael Glawogger’s Globalization Trilogy.

After leaving the USIA, Blue joined the faculty of the Media Center at Rice University in Houston. He founded their film program, which allowed him to invite important directors and continue his series of interviews in the form of seminars, and from 1970-75 co-directed the Center with his former UCLA student David MacDougall. Together they also made Kenya Boran (1974), a two-part documentary that considers the clash between tradition and modernity in Kenya’s Boran tribe via the contrasting experiences of two teenage herders. Their approach recalls the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch, whom Blue wrote about and interviewed for Film Comment and whose influence is further felt in Blue’s two final works, the TV series Who Killed the Fourth Ward? (1976-77) and The Invisible City (1979), which build on the participatory dimension of such films as Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Shot on Super 8 and broadcast on community television, the series capitalize on the increased immediacy and accessibility afforded by these new technologies, representing a utopian attempt to democratize the documentary form and turn it into a tool of civil discourse.

The three-episode Who Killed the Fourth Ward? treats the subject of urban renewal in a manner at once transparent and engaging, laying bare its own process while playing with conventions from detective films and paranoia thrillers. Looking very much like Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (1974), Blue narrates his investigation into a potential conspiracy around Houston’s Fourth Ward, a historically Black area that is rapidly dilapidating, in a noir-like voice-over full of rhetorical questions and expressions of self-doubt. Through interviews with different sections of society—residents of the Fourth Ward, representatives of the private sector, members of local government—the film paints a complex sociological portrait before initiating a dialogue between its different parts. In the second episode Blue meets the mayor, who tells him that the Fourth Ward is a victim of market forces, and that the government is helpless to prevent its eventual takeover by investors. In the next episode, the taped interview is shown to residents, who watch aghast as their neighborhood is declared a lost cause; then to an economist, who is brought in for a debate with the mayor; and finally to community leaders, who confer with the mayor about the options left open to them. Blue’s hope was that these exchanges would result in mass protests at City Hall. As he says ironically in the voice-over, he wanted to stage a dramatic conclusion for his series, a grand American finale like in a John Wayne or a Jimmy Stewart film. But the protests fail to materialize and, like the Pakula film it more closely resembles, Who Killed the Fourth Ward? ends in anti-climax: the conspiracy remains unresolved; the Fourth Ward is condemned.

Again intending to uncover the invisible forces driving Houston’s housing crisis, The Invisible City sought to remedy the ultimate disappointment of its predecessor by better utilizing the feedback-loop possibilities of the serial format. The series is split into five parts that were broadcast a week apart. At the end of each episode, viewers were invited to phone in or write to the production, who would then refocus their research and tailor the subsequent episodes according to the audience’s interests and concerns. Co-directed with Adèle Naudé Santos, a professor of architecture at Rice University, The Invisible City delves much deeper into its subject than Who Killed the Fourth Ward? While commendable for not speaking down to its viewers, and enlivened by experimental flourishes such as a Paul Sharits-inspired montage of decaying houses, at length it can feel like sitting in on a sociology seminar—which may be why the climactic question posed to the audience in the final episode only ended up attracting 52 answers. Though both series could be said to have ended in failure, these small-scale experiments were conceived as pilot studies. Blue’s mission to democratize his craft was cut short when he contracted stomach cancer not long after making The Invisible City, and died on June 14, 1980, at the age of 49. That his idealism might today be dismissed as quaint, when we have filmmaking and communication tools more accessible than he could have dreamed of, is a veritable tragedy.

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a Berlin-based writer, the co-founder of Fireflies Press, and a member of the selection committee of the Locarno Film Festival.


The Olive Trees of Justice (1962)