Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché documentary review: the movie pioneer you’ve never heard of

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Not only a portrait of the woman who made more than a thousand of the very first films, but a mystery detective story about how the achievements of a trailblazing woman were erased, and found again.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women, especially forgotten histories
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

This is what feminism often means, unfortunately: rediscovering — over and over again — the achievements of the women who blazed trails before us who have been erased in the annals written in their wake. Annals written by men, of course. This happens so often, and so easily and casually, that it’s very plain that it’s no accident but a deliberate erasure of women’s accomplishments. Fuck all this shit.

And so it is with Alice Guy-Blaché, who isn’t just an innovator and trailblazer among women filmmakers but of cinema on the whole. Including the bits that men were involved in. Allow me to quote myself, from a piece I wrote about the pioneering women of documentary film for PBS’s Independent Lens blog in 2016:

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché, the cinema pioneer you’ve never heard of.

When we talk about the early years of cinema, there is no separating “the history of women in film” from “the history of film.” Women have been there from the beginning, and have shaped the medium in transformative ways.

The idea that films could tell stories as opposed to documenting reality was hit upon by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché, who made the very first narrative movie, the 60-second-long “La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)” in 1896. (It was also the longest film made up to that point.)

Guy-Blaché wrote, directed, and/or produced more than a thousand films… including many from when she was just Guy, before she married. A single woman! A career gal! She started as a secretary — a very respectable and well-paid job at that point — at Gaumont Film in Paris in the 1890s, a company that made cameras and got into making films as a way to promote those cameras. And Guy was like, “Hey, let me make some of these here marketing movies to sell your equipment,” and because cinema was nowhere near the big-money endeavor it soon became and still is today, her male boss was all, “LOL, sure, go for it.”

And did she ever go for it. She made films across all sorts of genres, from comedies to war movies to *checks notes* social-justice dramas about birth control and child abuse. (Again, these were all “merely” narratives meant to entertain and delight audiences only in order to sell cameras to for-profit corporate establishments. But they ended up as extraordinary examples of craft and art anyway. Because she rocked, and was a total badass genius who saw what this new medium could do.) She made the first movie, as far as we know, with an all-black cast, which looks, from the clips of it we get here, to be a sort of Twilight Zone–ish be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary-tale dramedy. You know, like the stuff we still get all the time at the movies. The title of this documentary about her and her work — Be Natural — is a reference to her directive to her actors, which was emblazoned on a sign prominently displayed in the film studio she would establish in the very-early-20th-century proto-Hollywood in Fort Lee, New Jersey. So she pioneered naturalistic, realist, lifelike acting styles for film, too, in an era when over-the-top pantomime was the order of the day.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché on set.

But Be Natural — based on the book Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, by Alison McMahan, and occasionally narrated by Jodie Foster (Elysium, Carnage) — isn’t just a portrait of Guy-Blanché: it’s a mystery detective story about how filmmaker Pamela B. Green, making her feature debut, stumbled across word of Guy-Blaché and her absolute essentialness to cinema history and was astonished that she’d never heard of this cinema goddess before. And so she set off to learn more about Guy-Blaché and try to figure out how she got forgotten.

Not a spoiler: Green’s is an infuriating journey. But not a surprising one, if you’re aware of how women get wiped from history when we do manage to overcome all the barriers thrown in our way. It’s also entertaining and enlightening, and will leave you hungry to discover more about Guy-Blaché and her work. (Which, by the way, you can watch Guy-Blaché’s “The Cabbage Fairy” on YouTube. Although Be Natural suggests that the film under that title that is currently available may be a remake, by Guy-Blaché herself, from a few years later. It’s all still good.)

All of that I will leave for you to discover. See this movie. Make it known with your box-office dollars — if possible — that you care about this stuff. Because if you love movies and you don’t care, you’re just not paying attention.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 19th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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