Mo’ Reviews: ‘Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché’

Directed by: Pamela B. Green

Writing credits: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon

Narrated by: Jodie Foster

Synopsis (IMDB): Pamela B. Green’s energetic film about pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché is both a tribute and a detective story, tracing the circumstances by which this extraordinary artist faded from memory and the path toward her reclamation.

Be Natural has been featured at: BFI London Film Festival Official Selection 2018, 56th New York Film Festival Official Selection 2018, Cannes Festival Official Selection, Dauville American Cinema Festival Official Selection, Telluride Film Festival

My review:

Like the plethora of movie stars, film directors, writers and producers interviewed for Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, I didn’t know anything about Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film director in the history of the artform. It’s a travesty I didn’t know, since her body of work helped establish the types of techniques we see in film today. She inspired some of our most celebrated directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, among others. Even her entrepreneurship, which includes creating and running her own film company, Solax, helped establish America’s filmmaking scene as we know it today. As a studio head working in competition with those at Fox, Universal, Paramount, and several other names we know today, Guy-Blaché is, indeed, one of the true pioneers of film.

But why has her name been all but blotted out of history? Why do we celebrate the men who worked alongside her and in competition with her without mentioning her at all? As it turns out, a volatile mix of sexism, boys’ club capitalism, and sheer negligence led to Guy-Blaché’s erasure from a history she had a large hand in creating. Enter Be Natural.

Pamela B. Green’s documentary takes a type of “whodunnit” approach to the mystery of Guy-Blaché’s disappearance. Instead, this time the cause of death is a figurative one, a death in the eyes of historians and businesspeople, usually male. As the film itself reiterates, history is often told from the point of view of the conquerors, and male-dominated society made a point of keeping Guy-Blaché’s name out of their ranks.

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However, the documentary does a stellar job at placing Guy-Blaché back in her rightful place, a place she herself fought for throughout the latter years of her life. In fact, one of the selling points of the documentary is that we have Guy-Blaché tell her own story in her own words via interviews from ’50s and ’60s. She talks about how she got started in the industry at the very beginning, a secretary-turned-filmmaker, bringing her employer, Gaumond, up to its zenith in recognition and creativity. She talks of establishing Solax in America, and her later troubles with historians and even the later owners of Gaumond itself acknowledging her accomplishments to the art of film.

The documentary also gives viewers a play-by-play of how the documentary team painstakingly found each piece to the puzzle of Guy-Blaché’s life. By tracking down her relatives in the States, long-lost prints of her films, and an old interview of her daughter, Simone Guy, we come to know the details of Guy-Blaché’s working life and inner emotional world. We also finally see
Guy-Blaché exalted to her rightful place among the greats of cinema, a fitting end to this film.

One thing the documentary will do is spark those who love film to do their own investigations of Guy-Blaché. I feel there was a lot more material the team gathered that couldn’t be included in the documentary, otherwise the film would be 5 hours long. For instance, I’d love to know more about Guy-Blaché’s more experimental and controversial works, which touched on anti-Semitism, feminism and gender, and race. As we learn in the film, Guy-Blaché helped establish the presence of Black actors on screen with her all-Black film, A Fool and His Money. I’d love to learn more about her and how she seemed to love challenging her audience to think critically.

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But that type of information might be something a film buff or historian-in-the-making would love to research on their own. In this way, the film does invite the viewer to get to know Guy-Blaché for themselves, just as we come to know Hitchcock or Spielberg or any of the other great directors.

The documentary also wants the audience to consider our “modern” view of film, a view that we have wrongly held as “permanent.” While we have been taught over and over again that the first filmmakers were men, Guy-Blaché and other women filmmakers of the past prove that not only were women at one point able to make a seat at the table, they were able to rule the entire table with not many batting an eye (at least to a certain extent). In her heyday, Guy-Blaché employed many men to work under her, and most of them remained loyal to her, considering her the best in the field. The men she hired didn’t seem to feel intimidated by her presence as a woman. Instead, they viewed her just like how actors view male directors today. How wonderful it would be if this viewpoint of women in the director’s chair would come back.

Overall, Be Natural is a wonderful film for those who love the artform. If you’re planning on working in the industry in any capacity, it’s probably for the best that you learn about Guy-Blaché. Now that the documentary is out, you have no excuse not to know about the woman who launched the film industry as we know it.

Be Natural is currently playing in theaters and is available on VOD and DVD. You can visit the film’s website to see where the film is playing domestically and internationally.