Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, Directed by Pamela B. Green

This excellent documentary begins on shaky ground with a quick-fire montage of industry big-timers and indie heroes engaged in talking head interviews. The gist of this segment suggests a lot of industry insiders and intellectuals have not heard of pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. The film asks: “How could such an important filmmaker not be known?” Here lies my only contention with the film: it struggles to present itself as a mystery unnecessarily.

Guy-Blaché’s memoirs were published in 1996. She is the subject of several books. She had a retrospective at The Whitney Museum of Art in 2010. Every year since 2012, an award is given in her name at the Golden Film Festival. She’s not a household name, but she hardly wallows in obscurity. I embrace the film’s contention her work was not taken as seriously as her male counterparts, but I also believe filmmaking in general was not taken seriously nor was it well-documented as it could have been during this crucial time of its infancy. And like many filmmakers working from the early nineteenth century through the 1920s, much of Guy-Blaché’s footage has literally disintegrated. Only about a third of her films survived.

But the film settles quickly and begins to write Guy-Blaché into the tapestry of film history. This aspect of the story is rich enough to carry the film. It provides an invaluable opportunity to categorize and observe her surviving work. Director Pamela B. Green makes the case for Guy-Blaché with compelling use of footage, interviews, and an excellent timeline moving the film forward at an entertaining and informative pace. Guy-Blaché is widely believed to be the first director to make a narrative film. She also holds the distinction of being the first filmmaker to use an all African-American cast, although the result is objectionable, thematically, by today’s standards. She is also credited as first filmmaker to use close-ups, hand-tinted color, and synchronized sound (although the film never fully qualifies the contention she was the first to use close-ups). She also started Solax Films, snapping up the title of first female head of a studio. A sign on the studio wall is one of her prime directions to her actors: “Be Natural.” It was Guy-Blaché’s philosophy.

What is most astounding is all of this happened over an approximately twenty- year career. By the 1920s, film production was relocating to Hollywood, California, and Guy-Blaché encountered setbacks that pushed her studio (and much of the film business in Fort Lee, New Jersey, an early hub for film production) out of business. Guy-Blaché moved to Paris to find work, but struggled and eventually gave up or lost interest. “Why?” is a mystery Green chases to a logical conclusion. Guy-Blaché disintegrated into history like her fragile celluloid catalogue. She was a pioneer whose work would further an industry that certainly turned its back on her. This film does a first-rate job of telling her story. –Billups Allen (Zeitgeist)