Too few people know about the extraordinary woman who arguably created cinema as we know it. With La Fée aux Choux (1896), Alice Guy-Blaché became the first director in history to use film to do something that we now take for granted as the obvious job of the movies: to tell a story. (Some critics and scholars make a case for the Lumière brothers as the inventors of fiction film with the staged prank depicted in their 1895 L’Arroseur Arrosé, but this argument depends entirely on what one believes counts as a “story,” as opposed to an incident or attraction.) To note only that Guy-Blaché was “the world’s first woman director,” then, is to do her somewhat of a disservice, given her other even more remarkable achievements. (She also, for example, was the first director in history to use synchronized sound in film, decades before The Jazz Singer.) Pamela Green’s long-overdue documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is therefore a little safe and cautious in calling Guy-Blaché only “one of” the earliest fiction filmmakers. Even so, Green’s compelling account performs an essential service in at last giving a remarkable and nearly forgotten figure from cinema history the feature-length documentary that she deserves. Be Natural (entitled after the advice Guy-Blaché always gave her actors) is wholly engrossing, and by turns surprising, illuminating, and moving.
Don’t be put off by the slightly cheesy synthesizer music and desktop-publishing-style animations that introduce the film. Green’s documentary very quickly becomes entirely absorbing. She mixes clips of often hard-to-find movies by Guy-Blaché with interviews with directors and actors from today, many of whom were learning (sometimes amusingly) about Guy-Blaché for the first time as Green interviewed them. Green also reveals some rare and startling still shots of Guy-Blaché on the sets of her films in the 1890s. Most arrestingly, she includes black-and-white footage of an aged Guy-Blaché charming a rapt interviewer with stories of her youth. The documentary is full of gems like these that make it essential viewing for cinephiles, history buffs, documentary fans, and anyone who wants to know where the movies came from.
One of the facets of Green’s documentary style that makes this film so engaging (if not particularly original) is the structuring of the piece as a kind of detective story. Green frames Guy-Blaché’s story with her own hunt for artifacts and information about the director, a hunt which takes her across the country and to several locations in Europe. We discover more about Guy-Blaché as Green does, and many of Green’s finds are stunning (including lost interview footage with Guy-Blaché’s daughter Simone, a photograph not previously known to be of Guy-Blaché, and a medal belonging to Guy-Blaché that may have been an award of the Legion of Honour). The process of discovery lends the story drama, not that it needs it, and keeps viewers closely involved.
This is not to say that the film is without serious flaws. Chief among them, Green takes too much credit for breaking Guy-Blaché’s story. (The ostensibly “untold story” of Guy-Blaché’s role in history has actually been told numerous times by film scholars and historians, including by Guy-Blaché’s most respected modern biographer Alison McMahan, who is only interviewed onscreen for an absurdly brief time.) While Green fleetingly acknowledges near the beginning of the documentary that she originally learned about Guy-Blaché from a TV special about early women directors, that acknowledgment gets lost in the parade of new information, explanatory animations, and dizzyingly numerous interview clips with present-day filmmakers. (Some of these clips are so brief and of such limited value that one wishes Green had been more selective and allowed her more important interviewees more screen time. Do we really need a single-sentence clip from Diablo Cody? Why is Andy Samberg in this movie?) Green’s own frequently audible amazement at her discoveries and the sometimes excessive foregrounding of her detective story in the narrative ends up giving the unfortunate and erroneous impression that Green was the actual discoverer of Guy-Blaché, rather than a talented but late entry in the efforts to recover her story. There are ethical problems here. The people who first put in years and years of diligent, scrupulous, and largely thankless labor to unearth and tell Guy-Blaché’s story (e.g., McMahan, film historian Anthony Slide, and several others) are only bit players in this drama, while Green effectively hogs the spotlight. A more gracious documentarian would take care to give credit where credit was due, but that’s not what happens here.
Still, the documentary tells a crucially important story, and despite its flaws, it tells it well. Green has a gift for highlighting the more moving elements of her subject’s life without overselling them, and she eventually gets out of the way of the story enough to allow Guy-Blaché’s personality, history, and legacy to shine through. We need more documentaries like this one to tell the stories of other important early filmmakers whose remarkable lives and achievements have been virtually erased from history (Lois Weber, Marion Wong, Alla Nazimova, and others). If Be Natural is any indicator, we have a great deal to gain from bringing their stories to light.