Chicago Feminist Film Festival: ‘Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché’ Is An Important Documentary With a Few Problems

Alice Guy-Blaché was not only the first female director, but also one of the first film directors, period. But odds are you’ve never heard of her. She directed nearly 1,000 films (including what’s regarded as the first narrative film), founded her own movie studio, and shaped cinema today. But due to a film canon dictated by male power, her legacy was almost erased. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché tells her story, but unfortunately forgets quite a few figures along the way.

Alice Guy-Blaché was a French film director and from 1896 to 1906, was most likely the only female film director in the world. She experimented with cinema, creating some of the first examples of close-up, hand-colored film, and synchronized sound. She wrote comedies and tragedies, and created films, such as The Consequences of Feminism, that interrogated gender roles. She was a working mother who ran her own movie studio. So how is it possible that so few people have heard of her?

Director Pamela Green’s documentary weaves an intriguing story to answer this question, framed as a piece of investigative journalism as she tracks down bits of information about the almost-forgotten Guy-Blaché. She travels across the country, tracking down documents and speaking to distant relatives to complete the picture around a director almost forgotten. It is a compelling narrative that makes you want to scream in frustration at the men surrounding Guy-Blaché. Man after man received credit for her films, leaving her broke and struggling towards the end of her life. No matter how loudly she yelled for recognition, she was silenced and pushed to the side by men. But no longer will men sweep her legacy under the rug.

Green uses gorgeous graphics to illustrate Guy-Blaché’s Paris, her movie studio, and the ever-growing family tree Green discovers throughout her search. These eye-catching animations provide a vibrant contrast to talking head interviews and capture the complicated process of research.

But, Be Natural has a big problem. Green took on the task to tell Guy-Blaché’s story without acknowledging the archivists and historians who have worked for decades to bring attention to the historic director; she was never truly forgotten. While Green briefly mentions feminist film historians who worked to fight the male-dominated canon, she reduces them to a minute-long segment towards the film’s end. Green also erases the archivists who work tirelessly to preserve these films and assist in Green’s project. She makes it seem as if she is the only person who has ever cared about telling the world about Guy-Blaché, which is untrue. It is disappointing that in making a film about honoring a woman’s labor, the labor of others is erased.

It is difficult to navigate a documentary that does amazing work to tell the world about a female film director, while also forgetting to honor, or at least mention, those who have been fighting to preserve this legacy. Ultimately, this is an important piece of work that tells a broader audience about a woman who should be lauded like the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, and the other men credited for the beginning of cinema. Green portrays the life of Guy-Blaché beautifully. It is a gorgeous homage to an iconic woman, while simultaneously highlighting issues with documentary filmmaking and what it means to claim credit for the work of others. So next time you sit down to watch a movie, think of Alice Guy-Blaché and remember, “Be natural.”

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