HERSTORY IN THE MAKING
Movie Review – Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
Review by Steve Scholz
There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.
– Alice Guy-Blaché, from the 1914 trade journal The Moving Picture World
When looking for the origins of the motion picture industry, contributions by men like the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Edison are easy to find. But Be Natural takes on a subject rarely explored in film—the life and career of Alice Guy-Blaché, a 19th and 20th Century filmmaker and film studio founder who can accurately be called the Mother of Cinema.
This documentary, directed and co-written by Pamela B. Green, shows how young Alice Guy got her first taste of France’s motion picture industry when she became the secretary for Léon Gaumont, owner of Gaumont Films. Seeing the storytelling potential of this new medium, and with Gaumont’s permission, Guy made her first movie at age 23. The 1896 short La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) became one of the world’s earliest narrative fiction films. And between 1897 and 1907, Guy served as Head of Production at Gaumont Films, creating more fictional works like the comedy The Consequences of Feminism (Les Résultats du féminisme) and The Life Of Christ, an ambitious Biblical adaptation which featured a cast of 300 extras.
As Guy-Blachéwrote and directed her shorts and features, often with feminist and progressive themes, she also utilized early film colorizing techniques and special effects, and worked with Gaumont’s Chronophone sync-sound system. Then, after marrying Gaumont employee Herbert Blaché, she moved to America where she co-founded and became Artistic Director at Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Solax doubled as a full-time film production house and film processing facility that found great success before the Hollywood studio boom. Among Guy-Blaché’s US productions there was the 1912 film A Fool And His Money, likely the first film to feature an entirely African American cast.
Yet despite working on more than 1,000 films in her career as a director, writer, or producer, Guy-Blaché eventually lost Solax Studios, became a single parent when her husband left her, and spent many decades struggling to have others accurately acknowledge her place in film history. And after 1919, she never made another motion picture.
First-time feature director Green skillfully assembles many threads in Be Natural. She mixes scenes from Guy-Blaché’s early colorful and experimental works with modern-day interviews of filmmakers and actors whose projects often mirror the same styles and energies. Green’s blend of historical clips, found footage, and beautiful motion graphics also provides a captivating visual experience. Actor and filmmaker Jodie Foster narrates this well-paced documentary, which turns into a detective story and a thriller as Green uncovers rare details about Alice’s personal life and the films she left behind.
So why has Guy-Blachémostly been a footnote in film history instead of being hailed as a studio founder and an auteur? And how did so many of her cinematic innovations get overlooked or ignored? The film explores these questions, and others, as we see the rise of her career on both sides of the Atlantic, and the forces that worked against her when the film industry changed and moved westward.
In this era when more female filmmakers are getting well-deserved recognition, Be Natural is a fantastic tribute to the life and works of a cinematic pioneer. At times both inspiring and heartbreaking, this film is a must see for anyone who enjoys movies, and for any filmmaker ready to be energized by a true innovator.
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Directed by: Pamela B. Green
Release Date: Dec 7, 2018 (U.S.)
Run Time: 103 minutes (final cut)
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films