BE NATURAL/ THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE, US, 2018. Narrated by Jodie Foster. Directed by Pamela B. Green. 103 minutes. Rated G.
This Is an important documentary to be seen by professionals in the film industry but also for the wider public, helping them to go back to the origins of cinema, see the pioneers, technical achievement, difficulties, and, especially with this film, the contribution of Alice Guy-Blache, whose achievements were underestimated and forgotten for many decades.
The film’s director, Pamela B. Green, has done a great deal of research, even detective work, to discover who Alice Guy-Blache was, what she did, what she achieved in filmmaking, the reasons for her being overlooked, even by her colleagues, and her not finding her rightful place in cinema history. The style of research and detection keeps the audience interested and involved. And this is enhanced by the fact that Jodie Foster does the voice-over and commentary, even using her fluent French.
Alice Guy-Blache was French. When quite young, she became involved in the pioneer filmmaking in France at the end of the 19th century, the film providing information about the achievement of the Lumiere Brothers and the exhibition of their films in 1895, the companies that soon emerged, especially Pathe and, for Alice, the Gaumont company and its studios. By the turn of the 19th century, Alice had become very involved and to this film highlights her skills with photography, with direction and performance, with camera angles, with editing and pace. She also created quite a number of the stories.
Fortunately, there have been discoveries and restorations of her films, short films because of the nature of cameras and projectors in those years, but expert storytelling within a number of minutes. Many of the films look pristine with their black-and-white photography and the audience is probably wishing to see more of them.
The voice-over makes many points about the themes of the film is, treatment of both men and women, some feminist perspectives, some risk-taking in being explicit about human nature and relationships.
She was important to the Gaumont studios and then went to the United States, meeting her husband, Henry Blache, also involved in the company, setting up studios in New Jersey, the Solax Company, where she was significantly involved. While busy in the United States, she bore a daughter, became more alienated from her husband who worked with an actress/director, Lois Weber, both getting more attention from their contemporaries and historians leading to the almost-elimination of Alice from the history books. Gaumont himself continually underestimated her and neglected mention of her.
As with all documentaries, there are a great number of Talking Heads, some from the past but many contemporaries, especially women who have achieved in performance and direction, a huge billboard of faces with a camera zooming in for closer of their comments. There are interviews with film historians some of whom come to realise they have to revise their facts and make up for a neglect.
Importantly, the director has access to to important interviews with Alice herself, one with the Belgian film historian Victor Bachy who discusses her career and a more personalised interview with Alice during the 1960s, the interviewer asking the questions for which we want answers and the director skilfully editing them to provide a portrait of Alice, her memories, her achievements, her disappointments, her desire to recover the films – and the disappointment for her and the audience that she did not succeed.
This documentary serves as a belated introduction to Alice Guy-Blache and an interesting and quite exciting tribute to her.
Backlot films. Released August 1st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.