May 1, 2019

In Theaters--Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

I’ve been waiting years for the release of Be Natural:The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary about pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché directed by Pamela Green. As an early Kickstarter backer of the film, I’d frequently receive enticing updates about the production, and now that it is here, I can’t wait for the world to rediscover this important figure in film history. 

Guy-Blaché is responsible for so much of what cinema is to this day, both from a technical and narrative standpoint. She was not only a pioneering director and producer, but helped cinema to endure by expanding beyond simple documentation and making it a vehicle for storytelling.

As the secretary of Léon Gaumont at what would eventually be called Gaumont Studios, Alice witnessed the birth of cinema. In 1895, she attended a screening of Lumière Brothers films with her employer and marveled at the possibilities of this new medium. Eventually, she found herself behind the camera, where she transformed movies from records of daily life into stories and fantastical visions that would capture audiences far longer because they engaged the imagination.

Given this, why aren’t the history and works of Alice Guy-Blaché taught in film schools, even in France? There is a sequence in Be Natural where a succession of famous directors and actors look blank-faced at the mention of her name. Why do so few prominent filmmakers today know her name? Green digs into that question, which unsurprisingly has much to do with the patriarchy, but also with access to Blaché’s work. There are many works available by Edison, Méliès and the Lumière Brothers ensuring that their legacies are secure. Despite filming hundreds of productions, very few of Alice Guy’s movies are available to the public. To appreciate her work, it obviously must be seen.

Green tells Guy-Blaché’s early story with a slick collage of graphics which more than make up for the lack of footage from the time. She then transitions into a sort of detective story, her own quest to learn as much as she can about the director. There is a bit too much time dedicated here to voicemails and overlays of maps over a car rolling down a highway, but it is interesting to get inside Green’s research process.

In one simultaneously exhilarating and depressing sequence, one of Guy-Blaché’s American relatives shares an astonishing stash of items belonging to the director. It’s an amazing treasure trove of history, but he gives it up to Green without a second thought, because he tells her no one else cares about it. While this may be debatable, there’s no denying the fact that Green was the first person to make the effort to contact him.

I was most fascinated by the second half of the film, which goes into more detail about the films Guy-Blaché made. She is responsible for the first film with an all-black cast, A Fool and His Money (1912), in addition to innovating with new concepts like double exposure, split screen, special effects and sound. In the days before censor boards formed to police content, she dove into content that would soon be deemed too scandalous for the screen: raunchy stories, randy men, and the frank portrayal of a pregnant woman. She captured life as she saw it.

Guy-Blaché worked hard to preserve her own legacy when her film career faded. As late as 1939 she was having films incorrectly credited to Gaumont director Louis Feuillade put back under her name. She spent her later life tangling with the challenges of finding her films and getting her memoirs published, the latter of which finally happened eight years after her death in 1968.

In modern times, there has still been resistance to reviving and restoring the work of Guy-Blaché. Even in her native France there are those who question the profitability of preserving her work, a crass refusal to acknowledge the historic importance of doing so.

In the film, writer Nicole-Lise Bernheim put it best: “Here is a woman who helped invent cinema, and there is a silence around her. It’s absolutely intolerable and even stupid that we can’t see these films.” Hopefully Green’s documentary will help to change that. I believe it has the power to do so.

Thanks to SIFF for providing access to the film for review. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché will play at SIFF Film Center May 3-5.

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