Nov 30, 2019
Welcome back for another entry in our ongoing series, Under the Kanopy, covering the critically acclaimed, if not commercially successful films available on Kanopy. Kanopy is a streaming service funded by public libraries and universities, giving library card holders up to six free streams per month of classic and contemporary films. Today’s film, BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ, is one of the many incredible documentaries you can find on the service. For previous entries in the series, check out HER SMELL (Episode #650), ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE (Episode #643), 3 FACES (Episode #636), and THE IMAGE BOOK (Episode #629). Plenty more on the way!
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Here we go!
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Today’s movie is BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ, the Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films documentary directed by Pamela B. Green and written for the screen in collaboration with Joan Simon. The documentary examines the overlooked, but influential life and work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director and producer, and head of production for Gaumont Studios from 1896 to 1906. BE NATURAL also examines the efforts to locate, preserve, and transfer her many lost works for future generations to review, study, and most of all, enjoy.
Before the Internet, a surprising amount of history was produced via hearsay, often unresearched, or critically under-researched, and with a clear, male bias. In the scientific world, women were systematically written out of existence, or relegated to obligatory lists of colleagues, now receiving their just recognition and rewards thanks to films like HIDDEN FIGURES and MERCURY 13 (Episode #116). However, this same erasure also happened in the entertainment industry, in subtle forms like the widespread recognition of George Lucas over Kathleen Kennedy, to the more blatant attempts to erase women from film, like the story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
If you feel bad for not knowing about Alice Guy-Blaché, you shouldn’t. The trailer includes a montage of many high-profile filmmakers and scholars who know little to nothing of her work or her influence. I’m happy to admit that I knew almost nothing about her prior to this documentary, only seeing passing mention to her name in lists of early female filmmakers. Don’t feel bad, though! BE NATURAL, in addition to providing a comprehensive introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché, also explains why and how her name slowly eroded from film history, and as mentioned in the opening, how they are working to re-introduce her groundbreaking work back into the historical record.
The early film industry was a far cry from the modern film industry with films which cost and generate billions of dollars. Pamela Green lays perfect groundwork for the early industry, covering the major film manufacturers, and their surprisingly limited usage. Green shows how the early films captured mostly pedestrian scenes, an upper-class novelty for home videos and curiosities, at least before Alice Guy became a secretary at Gaumont Studios, a very high-class, progressive position for women at the time. After integrating herself into the organization, she asked if she could make a different kind of film, which was titled “The Cabbage Fairy”, and would be the world’s first narrative short film.
Now, I need you to stop and take that fact in. An overwhelming majority of the films created today are fictional and narrative in nature, but hers was the first, and would launch a studio war in Paris to write and produce narrative films, and to generate a hefty profit in the process. Guy-Blaché would make over 1,000 films in her lifetime and would be the first to experiment with multiple now standard film techniques. She addressed issues of gender, race, and class. She would also systemize the process, from conception to display, creating an industry where one did not exist. Her initial ideas and firsts in film would be pirated and copied over and over again as other film studios began to open, which is how she ended up in the United States.
Pamela Green continues Alice’s tale, from the founding of Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to the disruptive effects of the Great Depression, a divorce, two world wars, and being slowly disappeared from history. Green uses excellent visual aids to help tell the story, allowing the viewer to process a great deal of information in very subtle ways, akin to Guy-Blaché filmmaking style. The search for information about Guy-Blaché is also embedded into the story, with some discovered video content included as well, including restored versions of Guy-Blaché’s work and a forgotten and restored interview with her daughter, Simone Blaché. Green also includes brief primers on the difficulty of preserving and transferring Alice’s works from various media, especially the highly flammable nitrate film stock.
I think the most important aspect of this documentary, however, is that it completes the work that Alice Guy-Blaché spent her life doing after her film career, which was correcting the record of the early film industry and her slow erasure from it. After her autobiography was finally published in 1976, a host of researchers began separate quests to find out whatever they could about her influential life and work. As she was rediscovered, she has also been recognized posthumously for her work and contributions to the industry. Pamela Green stands on the shoulders of the researchers before her, but also adds to the growing body of work about Alice Guy-Blaché, in an excellent and accessible package.
BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ corrects and expands the record of one of the most influential filmmakers of all-time. It’s rare to find a documentary so effective and comprehensive, which balances a complete introduction to the subject as well as instilling a desire to know more. For filmmakers and film critics, there are precious few documentaries about the industry that are as important as today’s film. All film fans owe it to themselves to see this documentary, for the education alone, but also for the mesmerizing visual aids and insightful look into the film industry as a whole.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 10/10
BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ (2018) is not rated and is currently playing on Kanopy.