Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Alice Guy-Blaché.
Odds are, if you know even just a cursory amount of movie history, the silent film star is one of the first people rattled off the top of the list.
The industry’s first female filmmaker – involved in almost 1,000 films as some combination of director, writer and producer – rarely comes to mind, if ever.
A new documentary based on years of research by an independent filmmaker and decades of historical preservation by international archivists seeks to correct all that.
Written and directed by first-time feature documentarian Pamela B. Green, “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” is an interesting, frequently engaging look at a largely forgotten filmmaker whose influence and precedent setting far outweighed her notoriety.
Green paints a compelling case that Guy-Blaché’s former colleagues sought to revise film history in an attempt to diminish (or in some instances, erase entirely) her contributions to the world of early cinema.
The documentary premiered last year in the Official Selection of Cannes Classics before making its way through the film festival circuit. “Be Natural” is currently touring the United States and international markets on select dates.
“Be Natural” acts like a cinematic treasure hunt with Guy-Blaché and Green running concurrent searches over the course of the documentary: Guy-Blaché for her missing film prints and Green for information and sourcing on the director.
The documentary may wander a bit too much for some casual viewers, especially those unfamiliar or less interested in early cinema history.
Green often jumps between interviews with famous directors and actresses talking in vague generalities about what life must have been like for her as a pioneer in a male-dominated industry.
These moments are usually spliced with clips from various Guy-Blaché films in rapid succession to give a broad sense of her filmmaking style in the hopes of making the clips more accessible to casual audiences. At the rate these moments whiz by, however, it’s hard to discern a true sense of Guy-Blaché’s work as a viewer without having an interviewee or the documentary itself describe it.
Whether it was an editing choice or a lack of large segments of Guy-Blaché’s work, the biggest disappointment of “Be Natural” is the absence of several uninterrupted minutes of one of Guy-Blaché’s signature films to allow audiences to formulate their own opinions of her work.
Extended clips of her adaptation of the passion story, “The Life of Christ,” or the hysterical comedy, “The Drunken Mattress,” would have been welcome additions to the documentary.
Small fragments from these films – and a plethora of others – are littered throughout “Be Natural,” although each is so fleeting and often overlapped with other clips or interviewee dialogue that it’s difficult to appreciate any one film from Guy-Blaché’s filmography.
There’s also a chronological narrative layered into the documentary as Green attempts to piece together Guy-Blaché’s history from birth to death.
Intense crosscutting in the documentary requires audiences to bounce back and forth through history to the present to archived interviews from the 1950s and 1960s and this can be somewhat jarring for some audiences.
Green also includes telephone conversations tracking down potential sources that give important storytelling points, but often feel like rehearsed recreations of unrecorded conversations rather than fluid, spontaneous accounts.
This section admirably blends modern day sleuthing over Google and Skype with wonderfully rendered animations to provide historical context. The film’s 3D model of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Studio headquarters in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is especially effective as it contextualizes the entire filmmaking process succinctly and inventively while giving viewers a profound sense of space and place.
These dynamic visual moments are the most impressive directorial choice made by Green and really make the most impact as the documentary tries to make its subject matter as accessible to the lay public as possible.
“Be Natural” is a solid documentary in spite of its storytelling flaws thanks in large part to the compelling subject matter and exceptional animations. It certainly should make viewers want to seek out Guy-Blaché’s work as they become available online.
Ideally suited for ardent cinephiles, “Be Natural” should prove to have longevity touring various film festivals before finding a home on streaming services where it could be most appreciated.
Note: ‘Be Natural’ has yet to screen publicly in Texas and a screener copy of the film was provided for review purposes.