There’s an alarming degree of disingenuousness, or perhaps merely naiveté, permeating “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.” To begin with, there’s that title, “The Untold Story,” which ignores a number of earlier documentaries not to mention the significant amount of scholarship on pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. Also omitted is any mention of the 2009 Gaumont and Kino DVD box sets that made 66 of her films available. These are what can be called inconvenient truths, for Pamela B. Green, director of “Be Natural,” is on a mission to discover why — supposedly — no one has ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché.
As Green tells it, the reason is pure and simple: Because she was a woman, Guy-Blaché was written out of the history books. That’s not entirely wrong. Alice Guy, as she was then known, was present at the very start of the film industry and played a crucial role in the development of the medium both in France and the U.S., yet in later years her contributions were downplayed or ignored. There are however two problems with Green’s assessment: First, the early years of film history are riddled with major lacunae, and sloppy mid-20th-century scholarship did substantial damage to a proper understanding of the birth of cinema. This is true for most of the medium’s pioneers, and while Guy-Blaché’s vital work was frequently ignored, so too were the efforts of a great deal of others in the fledgling industry. Second, Green’s own cavalier disregard for current research inaccurately reflects, and does a disservice to, Guy-Blaché’s status today among film historians.
Yet “Be Natural” is likely to get a considerable amount of attention because it savvily invokes the #MeToo movement with its tale of the first female voice suppressed by the film industry. Green’s most impressive achievement isn’t the film itself but the major Kickstarter and merchandising campaign she organized to fund the documentary, as well as the list of Hollywood heavy hitters she brought in on both sides of the camera. The enterprise would be something to celebrate if the movie itself weren’t so flawed, not just in scholarly terms but in her mania for visualizing seemingly every phone call she made in the hunt for Guy-Blaché material. Sadly, all these problems overwhelm Green’s noteworthy success in tracking down previously unknown documents and photos.
Just get a gander at the sheer number of people she interviewed (over 90!), as well as the names. Most of us would be intrigued to hear Diablo Cody, or Gale Anne Hurd, or Lake Bell talk about the hurdles women in Hollywood face today, yet asking them if they know about Guy-Blaché is about as informative as person-on-the-street segments by late-night TV hosts — though not nearly as amusing. Yes, Green interviews important scholars and archivists such as Alison McMahan, Dino Everett, and Richard Koszarski, but their voices are drowned out by people with no ties to film history who all express amazement that they’ve never heard of Guy-Blaché. One wonders: Have they heard of the Skladanowsky brothers, Robert W. Paul, Albert Capellani, Émile Cohl…?
The documentary is fine at establishing the early chronology: Alice Guy was a secretary to Léon Gaumont before asking him in 1896 if she could direct a film. Gaumont said yes, and in short order she became not only a prolific director but head of production at the studio. In 1907 she married a fellow Gaumont employee, Herbert Blaché, and the two moved shortly after to the U.S., where in 1910 she set up her own studio, Solax. World War I created major financial problems for Solax, so by the late teens she was working for other studios and then, two years following their divorce in 1920, she returned to France, where a changed industry failed to give her opportunities for directing. In later life she stayed with her daughter Simone and died in New Jersey in 1968.
Green organizes her film like a detective story, tracking down every U.S.-based connection she can find via Ancestry.com and the phone directory. Her tenacity paid off and to her credit she unearthed an impressive amount of material hidden in family albums and storage cartons. She also wisely relies on filmed interviews with Guy-Blaché made in 1957 and 1964, though tellingly Green glides over without comment Guy-Blaché’s statement that she never had a problem as a female filmmaker working in America.
Green also barely acknowledges other women working in the U.S. industry around that time, nor does she mention the groundbreaking work of the Women Film Pioneers Project. No one from the Cinémathèque Française or Gaumont is interviewed despite significant work both institutions have done in recent years, nor is it stated that approximately 75% of all silent film is lost — which would have put into perspective Green’s presumptuous implication that Guy-Blaché’s films were allowed to disintegrate because a woman had been behind the camera.
The movie is overloaded with visual gimmicks, and for a film about early cinema, it’s more than maddening that many of the clips are shown at the wrong speed, and occasionally the incorrect aspect ratio. It should be said that the labor of love presented in Cannes Classics is a work in progress, as the filmmakers rely on donations to complete their multi-year project.