It’s not going to surprise anyone to read that the amount we don’t know frequently outweighs the vast amounts of information we think we do. Sometimes it’s hubris which makes us think this way, but more often than not, it’s caused by a rippling affect due to an erasure within history. Someone at some point decided to leave something out or change something they feel is unimportant or impossible and – boom – just like that, history is rewritten and we, the people, become boldly ignorant of the truth. Don’t feel badly then if you’re unfamiliar with the name Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker in the world, who also wrote, acted in, and produced many films made in France and the United States. In comparison to early cinema pioneers Thomas Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, and George Melies, Alice Guy-Blaché not only made more films than they did, but also utilized advanced techniques of synchronized sound, hand-tinted color, close-ups, split-screen, and special effects in much of her work. In 1899-1900, her film The Cabbage Fairy is credited as the first narrative film ever made. With so much accomplished in the early days of cinema, why is it that few know who Guy-Blaché is? How could such an influential career just disappear in the annals of history? Like a detective solving a cold case, filmmaker Pamela B. Green sets out to uncover this mystery in documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
A film like Be Natural isn’t for one type of audience, though the expectation is that a documentary about a forgotten pillar of the cinematic community would be for cinephiles and historians only. Perhaps because Green seeks to make Guy-Blaché more well-known or because the research process took such incredible turns, Be Natural is the furthest thing from a bland, straight-forward biographic documentary. It features interviews with some of the most well-known actors, directors, and producers in Hollywood – Agnes Varda, Ava DuVernay, Geena Davis, Julie Taymor, Peter Farrelly, Andy Samberg, to name a few – while being narrated by Oscar-winning actor/director Jodie Foster. All of this injects a sense of modern relevancy, while also creating an opportunity for a natural transition from one point or concept to another. But here’s the thing, of the individuals interviewed for the documentary, only a few knew who Guy-Blaché was and understood her contribution to cinema history. By putting these names up as ignorant, it helps the audience understand that they should feel no shame in the same lapse in information as these successful industry individuals. Doing this generates a feeling of companionship as the audience goes on this journey of discovery with some of the interviewees.
Documentaries, at their core, are about discovering something new, but what happens when so little is known about the subject? What do you do to fill those gaps? Though Green and her Be Natural research team took inspiration from Alison McMahan’s 2003 book Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, that kind of reading only inspires those already interested in the subject. A sense of solidarity only goes so far, so a hook is required to keep the audience locked in. As though emulating the cinematic ideas of Guy-Blaché, Green infuses energy into every moment, making even the simplest things feel propulsive. Instead of filming herself making calls to potential sources, animatics are shown of locations on a map or of a voicemail being left/listened to. As new information is gained, names, notes, and connections are presented as a living ancestral tree in a similar vein to a detective developing on a case. Connections are confirmed or cast aside, names are added and removed, and new sources bring surprising revelations. With every stone Green and the Be Natural Research Team turn over, an opportunity for new obstacle is presented. For instance, tracking down Guy-Blaché’s great-great-granddaughter reveals a part of the family tree previously unknown, leading to a widower who happens to have boxes and boxes of Guy-Blaché’s belongings and records. However, it’s unclear what the significance is of some of these objects until cameraman Charles Pen is found and his connection to Guy-Blaché explained. There’s an incredible, and absolutely infectious, tenacity on display from Green and her team in tracking down, documenting, and connecting untold amounts of information to create a full picture for why so little is known of about Guy-Blaché’s life and why she disappeared from industry. Piece by piece, interview by interview, connection by connection, Green uncovers the extraordinary tale of a 22-year old secretary whose legacy deserves to be honored in the hallowed halls of history.
There was a sign posted in Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company studios which read, “Be Natural” – a reminder for the actors to be present in the moment to create great art. Pamela B. Green and her team honor that legacy by eschewing formality and capturing the real story of Alice’s life and her life’s work. As immersive an experience as Be Natural is, the further into the journey audiences go, the more of a traditional feel it begins to take after a particularly amazing treasure trove of information is found. From there, Foster’s narration mostly takes over as images of the past go by. In these moments, the zip of the earlier aspects are gone, making what is found take on a slight melancholy. In truth, what became of Alice Guy-Blaché at the hands of the film community is an absolute travesty, largely brought on by pride, jealousy, and underestimation of women. Thankfully, Be Natural offers an opportunity to pull her out of the shadows and back into the light, where future filmmakers and historians can appreciate all that Guy-Blaché created, paving the way for generations to come.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is currently in select theaters as of April 2019. Information on screenings found on the official website. Be Natural previously premiered at the Cannes, Telluride, New York, Deauville, and London Film Festivals in 2018.
Audiences in North Carolina can attend a screening at the Cary Theatre July 13th, 14th, and 18th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.