REVIEW: “A Heartbreaking and Beautiful Restoration of a Film Pioneer” – Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache

Alice Guy Blache is the mother of film, but for many years no one knew her name, and many filmmakers still haven’t seen her work. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache, directed by Pamela B. Green, explores Guy Blache’s life and work from an archival perspective, with the goal of restoring her place in the popular film history canon. She explores her biography in much more depth than I’ve ever studied and uncovers lost papers and films through archival investigation. Green doesn’t just tell us about Alice Guy Blache, she shows us exactly what she finds as she researches and meets the people connected to her story. The feature is both heart-breaking and a beautiful restoration of Alice Guy Blache’s place in the film history canon. 

Be Natural opens with eye catching animations and graphics that take the audience back in time to the start of film. As we see each decade flash before our eyes, we see Hollywood disappear and the early film industry in New Jersey reappear. In the early 1900s, Europeans immigrated to the U.S. to create much of what became our film industry, but even before that Alice Guy Blache was experimenting with film in Paris in the 1880s and 90s. She became a secretary at Comptoir General de Photographie after meeting Leon Gaumont. He later bought the company (renamed Gaumont)and was invited to see one of the Lumiere’s first private screenings with the Cinematographe, an early camera-printer-projector. Alice went with him and was mesmerized, she dreamed of using film to tell stories as opposed to “actualities,” or documentaries of daily life with a stationary camera and minimal staging. At this time, only a few people had access to moving image cameras, and no one was making fiction films yet. Gaumont said she could experiment with their company’s equipment on breaks as long as it didn’t interfere with her secretarial work. In 1897, she became the head of Production. Thus, cinema as we know it was born.

Everything I’ve recounted to this point I learned in film school, because I was lucky enough to have great women professors that know about Alice Guy Blache and other women pioneers of the industry. However, in Be Natural, Green uncovers more of Blache’s work than I’ve ever been able to find or read about before; I learned that she was innovative in more than just narrative film and early synchronized sound. While it is true that other filmmakers made narrative films only a few years after Guy Blache, she deserves a place in film history for all of the innovations she created before many of the “greats” of early film such as Edison, Melies, Griffith, etc who were her contemporaries. For example, one Google search for “the origin of the close up in film” supplies all of these names but no mention of Guy Blache, who we now realize was experimenting with the technique at the same time or quite possibly before these men. 

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In 1910, Guy Blache resigned at Gaumont and moved to the U.S. with her husband. She founded her company, Solax, and proceeded to manage all aspects of production. She and her husband gave Lois Weber her start, another early woman film pioneer. Eisenstein saw her films as a child and was inspired; even Hitchcock listed her as one of his favorite early filmmakers. She made one of the first films with a black cast, and  made early film musicals long before The Jazz Singer. Green proves without a doubt that Alice Guy Blache’s influence goes beyond Paris or New Jersey, beyond the silent era. She touched every part of the film industry as we know it. 

In interviews with Guy Blache later in life, we see her desperation to be recognized for her work. At the 12th FIAF conference (an annual international archival conference still held today), she launches a worldwide search to find her films, all of which were lost at the time. She is only able to find a couple fragments before her death and no publishers would agree to take her memoirs. In Be Natural, Green launches her own archival investigation which proves to be monumental. She uses her resources and our modern global film landscape to find Guy Blache’s precious films and papers all over the world and documents it all for us to watch and discover with her. We see her trek from California to New Jersey to Arizona to France. The places she can’t visit in person, she contacts via phone, email, or skype. She meets Guy Blache’s distant relatives and the relatives of her friends. She pieces together parts of her life that were unknown to us and disregarded from popular film history.

Green does an incredible job of juxtaposing the work of the well-known filmmakers of the era with Guy Blache’s films, showing us what she was capable of with minimal training and a lot of hard work and creativity. In her two-decade long career, she was part of a thousand film projects in which she wrote, directed, or produced. Her body of work is significantly larger than that of the Lumiere brothers, George Melies, and even Edison. In one segment, Green interviews famous filmmakers and almost none have heard of her. This film isn’t just informative and entertaining, it is imperative. Without Green, dozens of filmmakers would still not know Alice Guy Blache’s name and many of her papers and films would be sitting in old boxes slowly rotting away without proper care.

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