“There is no merit in being first.”
These are the words uttered by Alice Guy-Blaché to one of the many film historians who overlooked her during her lifetime. Near the end of her life, Alice sounds tired — tired of reminding the men who write and catalogue the early history of film that she was not only there, but she was essential to its development. She sounds like she no longer believes there is any point in correcting them.
It’s a little devastating to know that no one was interested in publishing Guy-Blaché’s memoirs while she was alive, and that 123 years after she directed what is arguably the world’s first narrative film, hardly anyone outside of film academia knows her name. This is the historic injustice that director Pamela Green seeks to rectify in Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. Thankfully, she does exactly that without any of the melancholy that threatens to overwhelm me when I think about Guy-Blaché’s erasure from film history.
Green treats her subject as a mystery from the first: Who was Alice Guy-Blaché? What exactly were her contributions to the early film industry? And, most importantly, why did she disappear from our cultural memory? With the help from Jodie Foster’s narration, Green answers each one of these questions, taking viewers from Alice’s early childhood in France and her employment as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, one of the early pioneers of motion-picture photography. to her 25-year career as a director, writer, editor and producer in the nascent film industry.
Under Gaumont, Guy-Blaché became not just the first female film director in history, but one of the first directors period. She directed thousands of films across decades and continents, and even founded her own studio, Solax, during the pre-California silent movie boom in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in the 1900s. In this studio was a large sign that featured her only advice to actors: BE NATURAL.
Green seamlessly blends her investigative techniques, such as traditional archival research and tracking down potential Blaché relatives using Ancestry.com and Skype, with footage of Blaché’s films, interviews with Blaché and her daughter Simone, and talking heads from a plethora of film directors and actors (from Gillian Armstrong to Andy Samberg) who discuss with bewilderment Alice’s accomplishments of which they were previously unaware. (One of the only members of the film industry interviewed here who knew about Alice previously? Ava DuVernay, naturally.)
Most excitingly, Green tracks down a number of Alice’s papers and artifacts that various family members held onto for more than 100 years, which go a long way toward settling many of the questions surrounding Guy-Blaché’s life and work. Throughout it all, Green maintains an air of adventure as she unearths yet another detail or digitizes an interview on a pneumatic tape that no one has seen or heard since the 1970s — which is precisely the kind of tone this documentary needs.
Without Green’s enthusiasm, Guy-Blaché’s story would be too depressing to contemplate. Within her own lifetime, historians misattributed Guy-Blaché’s films to other male directors, and credit for the founding of her studio was given to her husband, director Herbert Blaché. She was written out of the history of Gaumont’s company both during his life and especially after his death. And, perhaps most insultingly, the world gave Lois Weber — at one time Alice’s protegée, and then a mistress of Alice’s husband — the title of “first female director,” almost as though Alice had never existed. She spent decades gently correcting various historians yet it seems the corrections never really came through.
Several historians point out that the only way to truly correct the historical record is to get Alice Guy-Blaché’s films out there for audiences to see. Thankfully, they are more available now than they ever have been before: A quick YouTube search brings up thousands of results, and an entire disc of Kino Lorber’s massive Pioneers: The First Women Filmmakers set is dedicated to Alice’s films. (An abridged version of this set is also available on Netflix, where you can watch Alice’s films The Ocean Waif, Falling Leaves and A House Divided.)
Indiana residents are particularly in luck: On Tuesday, Sept. 3, the Indiana University Cinema is hosting a screening of Be Natural along with two of Guy-Blaché’s films — The Little Rangers and Algie the Miner. This is the perfect setting for Be Natural because, above all, this documentary is meant to educate. Film history is not the only field in which women and their accomplishments have been erased, and we owe a serious debt to people like Pamela Green for bringing them back into the light.