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.

So wrote Alice Guy-Blaché in the trade paper, Moving Picture World in an article titled, “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production.” The year was 1914 and Guy-Blaché wasn’t just fighting for her present, she was fighting for her past.

As most history books recount, the movies were born, more or less, on March 22, 1895, with Louis Lumière’s 46-second film of workers leaving a factory. What’s often left out of that origin story is the presence of Alice Guy, a 22-year-old Gaumont secretary, in the audience. How enchanted she must have been by those flickering images because one year later, she would direct her own movie, a simple fantasy called The Cabbage Fairy—arguably the world’s first narrative film.

Over the next 25 years, Guy-Blaché (she married Herbert Blaché in 1907) wrote, directed, produced, and oversaw roughly 700 short films for Gaumont Productions. She experimented endlessly, including hand-colored films and even early forms of synchronized sound. In 1907 she made The Life of Christ, a blockbuster production with 300 extras. In 1912, she made A Fool and His Money, the first film starring an all-Black cast. While cinema was still finding its footing, Guy-Blaché pulled off the training wheels and pushed movies into maturity.

But, as the old saying goes, history is written by the victors, and when younger male directors supplanted Guy-Blaché’s position, so too went her story. Some histories include Guy-Blaché, but not enough. And those that do, get many of the facts wrong.

A promotional still of Alice Guy-Blaché directing. Images courtesy Kino Lorber.

Enter filmmaker Pamela B. Green and her new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a work that looks to right the history books and exalt Guy-Blaché to her rightful place as one of cinema’s true pioneers.

Since so much of Guy-Blaché’s work and life is unknown, a good portion of Be Natural is a detective story; the kind video essayist Kevin B. Lee calls “the desktop documentary.” Smashing together Google searches, Skype conversations, maps, family trees, and archival footage—most of which was discovered by Green’s team in the making of the doc—Green doesn’t just tell Guy-Blaché’s story, she resurrects it. Taking what could be dry-as-dust history, Green instills it with a breakneck pace of discovery.

Be Natural should be required viewing for anyone at least halfway interested in the history of cinema, doubly so for those who think the pantheon of filmmakers belongs solely to one gender. When we talk about cinema, we talk about the history of cinema. It’s an incomplete history; it always has been and always will be. But, thanks to Be Natural, we can start to see what the whole picture looks like. What a beautiful picture it is.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)
Directed by Pamela B. Green
Written by Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon
Produced by Pamela B. Green
Zeitgeist Films, Not rated, Running time 103 minutes, Opened Dec. 7, 2018.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 29, “A woman’s place in cinema.”