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Pamela B. Green, best known for her work as a title sequence director and designer, makes her feature debut with Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache, a scrupulously well-researched documentary about one of early cinema’s greatest pioneers and the world’s first woman filmmaker. A “multihyphenate” talent before such terms were even invented, Paris-born Guy-Blache directed, wrote or produced over a 1,000 films, including some 150 films with synchronized sound. She was the founder of one of the United States’ first film studios, but her accomplishments have been shockingly neglected for over a century. Even worse, film historians have misattributed her films to others.
Funded through Kickstarter, not least with contributions from some of the many contemporary filmmakers interviewed here, this represents a timely contribution to the international conversation about the challenges facing women filmmakers while also boosting the reputation of someone who really should be better known by now as a role model. As a teaching and consciousness-raising tool, it will be an indispensable resource.
That said, there are a few issues. Some might quibble about the title, for a start, given that Guy-Blache’s story has not gone entirely without telling by scholars. Admittedly, it’s never been recounted at this length in a film before, and Green has dug up some new primary material, including photographs and letters that had been mouldering in the attics of family members, some of whom didn’t even realize they were related to Guy-Blache.
Elsewhere, the decision to include quite so many interviews from such a random selection of filmmakers is a little odd and arguably needlessly time-consuming, especially since most of them don’t really say anything interesting apart from disingenuously asking, “Who is Alice Guy-Blache?” and then proceeding later to praise her work based on footage the filmmaker has seemingly just shown them. No doubt the assembled names add a little marketing fairy dust, but it’s hard to imagine hordes of Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld) or Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) fans storming the specialist cinemas or scouring the cable schedules to catch a documentary about a silent film innovator. Mind you, props to producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator) for being one of the very few Americans interviewed here who had heard about Guy-Blache well before anyone approached her for this.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the film historians and archivists like Serge Bromberg, Kevin Brownlow, Claire Clouzot, Dino Everett, Anthony Slide and Cecile Star, as well as the film’s co-screenwriter Joan Simon, who have the most illuminating things to say about the historical context and Guy-Blache’s significance as a filmmaker, explaining precisely why she was such an innovator, above and beyond the mere fact that she was a woman.
Using lots of zippy visual effects to bring old photographs, maps and drawings to life, as well as a generous dose of archive film by and of Guy-Blache herself, the film clearly explains how she became a success not just through talent and tenacity, but also by being in the right place at the right time. Hired to be a secretary for inventor Leon Gaumont, she was one of the very first people to see the cinematic apparatus devised by the Lumiere Brothers and to spot how the medium could be used to film more than just people leaving a factory or other documentary subjects. There’s a good case to be made that she invented narrative film with her very first work, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage, 1896), a film that was later, like so many of her works, misattributed for years to one of her male colleagues.
Retracing her steps from Paris to Fort Lee, N.J., to California and then back to Europe, director Green builds up a lively portrait of the Wild West of early cinema, a terrain that at first was not so hostile to women participating in it because no one took it that seriously as an art form. It became one of the few fields then in which women like Guy-Blache and later Lois Weber (who had an affair with Alice’s shifty husband Herbert Blache) could be the boss, shaping a form that was considered an attraction largely for kids, women and working classes. As is often the case, the villain of the story turns out to be capitalism and industrialization, which overtook the industry and turned it into the dream factories we’ve come to know.
Naturally, as the film makes emphatically clear, there were also a fair few men who screwed Guy-Blache out of the money, recognition and credit she deserved. But the woman herself, seen in interviews shot not long before she died, remained a modest and eminently proper lady, firmly but politely insisting that what is true, is true without playing the victim in any way. Surely it’s only a matter of time before someone, perhaps one of the famous filmmakers featured in this very documentary, sees the potential for a biopic about a feminist heroine who made art around the same time the word “feminism” was coined.
Cast: Jodie Foster, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Julie Delpy, Agnes Varda, Ben Kingsley, Michel Hazanavicius, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, Gale Anne Hurd, Andy Sandberg, John Bailey, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Marjane Satrapi, Anne Fontaine, Peter Farrelly, Jonathan Glickman, Mark Romanek, Kevin Brownlow, Kevin Macdonald, Geena Davis, Pierre William Glenn, Jan-Christopher Horak, Glenn Myrent, Serge Bromberg, Howard Cohen, Valerie Steele, Jean-Michel Frodon, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Janeane Garofalo, Jon M. Chu, Mark Stetson, Anastasia Masaro, Dino Everett, Stephanie Allain, Claire Clouzot, Anthony Slide, Cecile Starr
Director: Pamela B. Green
Screenwriters: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon
Producers: Pamela B. Green
Executive producers: Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jodie Foster, Hugh M. Hefner, John Ptak, Robert Redford,
Regina K. Scully, Jamie Wolf
Editor: Pamela B. Green
Music: Peter G. Adams
Sales: The Film Sales Company
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