REVIEW: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)

Alice Guy-Blaché, the French filmmaker widely credited as the world’s first female director, falls under the spotlight in Pamela B. Green’s widely celebrated new documentary. She is a creditable choice for a documentary subject: not just historically significant but immensely talented, and entertaining to learn about. She started off a secretary to film company founder Léon Gaumont, and started supervising demonstration films for their new motion picture technology. Before long Guy (later Guy-Blaché) was writing, directing and producing an array of short films – by career’s end she had made something like 1,000 of them in total.

The patriarchal first generation of film historians pretty much erased Guy from the record: attributing her studio to her husband and some of her most successful films to colleagues and apprentices. While she worked on re-addressing the record herself in old age, it still erased her career prospects in both France and the USA for much of her potential career. Through her own investigations and paper chases, Palema B. Green tries to showcase why Guy remains so significant and so important to remember.

It is a highly dynamic and energetic documentary, with hunts for old film prints and photographic evidence, old interview clips and snippets, and so on. It is directed and edited to form as much as detective story as a documentary, and comes packed with brief comments and opinions from a host of American and French filmmaking and industry talent. If anything it is packed a little too closely together, and while it’s obviously a coup to score a large cast of famous faces one does wonder if all of them were necessary or relevant to the story at hand. It also feels a little over-long as well, and a better production might have pared back a little of the detail in Guy’s later years. It also regularly feels a tad deceptive. Much of the story’s mystique comes from the idea of Guy-Blaché as an obscure and forgotten feminist icon, something emphasised by the detective story narrative, the “untold story” subtitle, and the strange cavalcade of famous Hollywood women expressing their slack-jawed surprise at learn of the director’s existence at all. In truth Guy is obscure because silent cinema is obscure – audiences generally don’t have access to silent cinema if they wanted to watch it, and failing to recognise the name of Alice Guy-Blaché is about as unforgivable as forgetting the name of most other silent filmmakers from the dawn of the cinema medium. Making her forgotten helps the narrative, and it slots the documentary neatly into a #metoo hashtag of Hollywood misogyny, but the bottom line is that anybody with an interest in French fin-de-siecle cinema would have already known much about her.

That in mind, there is a lot of freshness and enthusiasm throughout. It shines a well-deserved highlight on an important filmmaker, and showcases a lot of great photographs and footage. If you have an interest in filmmaking, women in film, and the foundations of screen drama, this is a worthy and particularly entertaining documentary.

Be Natural is currently screening in Australian cinemas for a limited time.

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