One of the great joys of the digital age of movies is coming across films and directors you’ve never heard of, and yet who have something unique and interesting to say. Such a film is The Olive Trees of Justice, a French-language film directed by the American James Blue, based on an autobiographical novel Les Oliviers de la justice by Jean Pélégri, and shot in Algiers and the Mitidja plain during the Algerian War of Independence, making it the only French movie shot in Algeria during the war (the filmmakers claimed they were making a documentary about olive oil production, and the film’s extensive use of narration may have been an attempt to hide their real purposes from the authorities).
Pélégri was a pied-noir (a person of French descent born in Algeria) who became a literature professor and author. Although he left Algeria after the War, dying in Paris in 2003, like his rough contemporary Albert Camus he considered himself first and foremost an Algerian. The story of The Olive Trees of Justice concerns a stand-in for himself, also named Jean (Pierre Prothon) who returns to his childhood home in Algeria to visit his father (played by Pélégri himself), who is seriously ill.
Today, Jean lives in Paris, with his wife and children, and wishes his parents would join him. His father had once run a farm, but lost it years ago through bad business decisions, and now lives in Algiers with his devoted wife (Marie Decaître). The interior of the parents’ home suggests they live in France, and this was even more true in the flashback sequences set on the farm, where the family sets their clocks to Paris time and celebrates Bastille Day.
Outdoors, in the present day, things are a bit more uneasy, as Jean discovers as walks around his old haunts. Downtown Algiers is a real study in diversity: there are plenty of French cafes and bakeries and shops, and Jean passes plenty of French faces on the street, but also men in fezzes and turbans and women wearing headscarves and veils. There are also plenty of armed soldiers, and he sees several soldiers defuse a bomb hidden in a market basket.
Adult Jean is quickly bored with life in Algiers, and longs to return to France, while his family wishes him to stay. Of course, he hasn’t given the city a chance, and is so uninterested in the life of his Arab neighbors that he isn’t aware that the next day will be Ashura, nor to learn what that signifies to them. He does spend some time talking to Arabs who work for his family, who try to get him to see what the French occupation is like for them, but it’s hard to get through to someone who’s always assumed they deserve the privileges they enjoy.
Jean’s current discontent contrasts with flashbacks of his childhood, when he raced around his parents’ farm on his bike, playing with Algerian children while their parents toiled in the fields. His adult self thinks how much better is the cultivated farm than what he considered to be the wasteland that had been there before the French arrived, while flashbacks show his father treating the native workers badly. Still, Jean’s father is more humane than his cousin Louise (Huguette Poggi), who is determined to hold on to her property and suggests that “shooting ten of them for one of us” might be an appropriate response to the current unrest.
Jules Rascheff’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning yet absolutely without mannerism, so that this film often feels like a documentary, an effect further aided by the use of mostly non-professionals in the cast. Surprisingly, for someone with such a feel for visuals, Rascheff has only four cinematography credits listed in imdb.com. Maurice Jarre’s score is jarring yet appropriate, signaling Jean’s divided soul as well as the conflict that would eventually liberate Algeria from its French colonizers.
Blue led an interesting life. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Oregon, he studied theater at the University of Oregon, served in the military, then studied film at IDHEC in Paris. He made several documentary films for the U.S. Information Agency, including The March, which covers the 1963 March on Washington. A later film, A Few Notes on Our Food Problem, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1968. Blue also taught at UCLA and the American Film Institute, among other places, received the first Ford Foundation grant awarded to a filmmaker, and recorded a series of over 75 interviews with directors before dying of cancer at age 49 in 1980.
The Olive Trees of Justice wasn’t screened widely in 1962, when it was new, despite winning the Critic’s Prize at Cannes that year (the next American to win was Francis Ford Coppola). Without digital home viewing I would likely never have come across it. So thanks, once again, to Kino Lorber for making my life a little richer and helping to make available yet another gem of cinematic history. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Olive Trees of Justice is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and digitally through Kino Now. Extras on the disc include the 1960 short film “Amal,” directed by James Blue (20 min.), and the trailer for the main film.