If you were asked to name some of the greatest and most influential filmmakers, what names would spring to mind? Hitchcock, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarantino? Perhaps Eisenstein or Chaplin? How about Alice Guy-Blaché? No? Luckily for you (and for Alice’s legacy), Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is here to help.
Narrated by Jodie Foster (one of several big name producers of the film), Be Natural charts the life and career of pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. Beginning as a secretary to Leon Gaumont, one of four men heading up Gaumont et Cie, a camera manufacturer and film studio, she eventually became one of the most sought after directors in the world. With more than 1000 film credits to her name, including experiments in hand tinted colour and synchronised sound, she went on to found Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the original home of American cinema.
Alice’s was a career of potential firsts – the first narrative film (The Cabbage Fairy in 1896), the first all African-American cast (A Fool and His Money, 1912), the first, and for a good while the only, female director in the world – yet when Be Natural reached out to a myriad of actors and directors, only a few had heard of her. Other than appearing in a handful of film class syllabuses, her name has all but faded into obscurity. Where is Alice Guy-Blaché’s place in film history?
As Foster focuses on Alice’s work, Be Natural‘s writer and director Pamela B. Green does the investigative rounds. Interspersed with Foster’s commentary are phone calls and Skype conversations Green has with relatives and historians as she tries to track down Alice’s films and writings, while interviews with Alice in the 1960s and her daughter Simone in the 1970s flesh out the scenes. The interviews with Alice are a particular highlight – she’s witty, charming, and proud of her work (as well she should be), and having a face and a voice to put to the name and bring life to the woman in the shared photographs is a true joy.
Celebrated in her time, Alice’s star began to fade as she aged. Struggling to find studio work, her difficulties are further compounded by a rising wave of filmmakers, critics, and historians who simply wrote her out of the timeline. Her works were attributed to male assistant directors, her role in the formation and running of various studios reduced, and her attempts to fix the problem often went ignored. It’s frustrating but all too familiar – male academics writing the history books; men leading the cinema industry; an older woman pushed out the workforce. We’ve seen it all before.
But in Be Natural, there’s a glimmer of hope. People from across the world are shown coming together to locate and restore Alice’s films – a personal goal for Alice that she, sadly, never reached. New family connections have been discovered through Green’s work. And now, for mass audiences, there is this very documentary.
With Alice making the first strides into narrative filmmaking, it’s fitting that Be Natural is an engaging and occasionally quite emotional watch. It’s hard to repress a gasp when something new is discovered, and I found myself in tears more than once. Though it’s dressed as a simple biopic, there’s a startling amount of heart and humanity to this documentary-cum-detective story, and Be Natural will ensure that Alice and her work remains in viewer’s minds for a long time to come.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is showing in selected cinemas now. Head to the documentary website for screenings near you!