Review: BE NATURAL: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Fascinating cinematic detective story profiles the world’s first woman filmmaker.

It’s a mystery that takes us back to the dawn of cinema itself. In 1890s France, the motion picture industry was just in its infancy, and a young woman named Alice Guy-Blaché found herself at the center of it. Despite her massive body of work and innovation, most filmmakers and film buffs probably don’t know who she is. Well, first-time documentarian Pamela B. Green set out to change that, and in the process she uncovered an enduring mystery.

Bringing a filmmaker out of the shadows.

Green colorfully tells us that Guy-Blaché’s story brought her from France to the United States. And in making the overseas trip, she left behind many significant films she directed and produced while in the employ of L. Gaumont et Cie. Sadly, finding these films has become difficult as preservation efforts were not given priority—filmmaking was considered more of a business enterprise and less of a true art form. Guy-Blaché’s early efforts, including what’s been called the world’s first narrative film, 1896’s “La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy),” may have been considered part of a series of “demonstration films” aimed at selling cameras. Now, of course, we realize the true impact of this groundbreaking work.

Titling and animation techniques provide context.

Green’s background in titling for feature films is lavishly on display in “Be Natural.” The documentary utilizes entertaining animation and titling techniques to give us all the proper context. And in minutes, we’re well up to speed on Guy-Blaché’s backstory. This leaves ample time for the narrative to slow down and focus on finding the films and to confirm Guy-Blaché’s place in cinematic history. The evidence uncovered is clear, however, some may still find facts in dispute. Even as late as the 1970s, cineastes argued over who directed what. But Green makes an evidenced-based case by skillfully doing the reporting. What’s really wonderful is that Green shows us the process, while also showing us Guy-Blaché in on-set photos inventing filmmaking techniques that are used regularly today.

While Green’s polished film feels independently produced, the subject caught the attention of some of the biggest names in film today. The movie is narrated by filmmaker and actor Jodie Foster. And a veritable who’s who appear to comment on Guy-Blaché’s influence, even as they are, for the first time, introduced to the filmmaker’s body of work. This collection of stars is impressive and more than just a gimmick, especially as many admit ignorance. This points up the importance of Green’s film in educating so many about an almost forgotten pioneer. It’s a story worthy of narrative treatment.

Filmmaker Green shows us the reporting process.

But because Green’s background is in post-production and the tech-heavy side of the business, she engages a cinematographer to try to recreate some of Guy-Blaché’s films using similar equipment. This is great fun, for the cinematographer and for the viewer. And doing what Guy-Blaché and her team did back then proves to be a real chore. Filmmakers today, armed with a 4K movie camera in their pockets, are so lucky.

I was really taken by Green’s decision in one sequence to revisit the locations of Guy-Blaché’s early films. Many of them were comedies, involving a great amount of physical slapstick. This portion of “Be Natural” puts the viewer in that place and the film clips immerse us more fully into the power of film and its true artistic medium.

An impactful mystery, filmmaker Pamela B. Green’s debut is a gift to film historians and an educational treat for anyone interested in how the art form was born.