I took two film history courses in college that never once mentioned Alice Guy-Blache. It’s not a huge deal, I guess. Unless Guy-Blache just happens to be—oh, you know—the French filmmaker who invented narrative film, close-ups, and the very concept of film editing at the turn of the 20th century. No big deal, right?! It’s not like she developed cinematic techniques that became the basis for a globally dominant art form that’s going to be around for the next few thousand years, or anything…
In fact, the only silent film both professors even mentioned was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), the racist extravaganza about heroic Klu Klux Klan members “rescuing” the South from racial tolerance. It just makes me feel so warm and fuzzy inside when I think of how the first prominent woman filmmaker was almost completely lost to history, but the KKK superhero movie still gets namedropped in film courses.
Pamela B. Green’s new documentary, Be Natural, reveals Guy-Blache was not just the first prominent woman writer/director; she stands alongside Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy as one of the most successful women to ever work in the film industry. Before Guy-Blache, “moving picture shows” were just that: audiences sat and stared at a single static shot of an everyday occurrence playing on a loop. The first “blockbuster” was straight-up just footage of a train pulling into a station. Guy-Blache was the first person to ask, “What if we put multiple static shots together and use camera tricks to film something fantastical?” Early filmmakers were scientists in lab coats churning out cutesy little carnival attractions barely anyone thought would stick around. Guy-Blache was the first prominent director to truly be a narrative storyteller.
After she essentially invented editing, Guy-Blache directed films with special effects almost a full decade before the much more famous Georges “Tim Burton of the Silent Era” Melies came along. She made the first films to use close-up shots, the first films with child actors, the first films with all-black casts, the first musical 30 years before the first wave of “talkies,” the first films in technicolor long before The Wizard of Oz, and she operated the first modern filmmaking studio. As the first person to realize melodramatic stage acting doesn’t translate well to film because the camera is so much closer to the performers, Guy-Blache even helped invent modern film acting by directing her casts to “Be natural.” Most silent film historians actually know all of this. They just don’t care. Seriously.
Be Natural opens with quite a depressing montage of filmmakers and actors, many of whom are women, who can’t believe they never heard of Guy-Blache. Later in the film, we hear dismissive comments from French film historians who can’t actually explain why they’re being so dismissive of a filmmaker who directed over 200 titles…which is kind of an explanation in and of itself. There’s not simply just hearsay or evidence of Guy-Blache’s accomplishments—her films are the actual proof, and anyone can check them out online. It’s sad there are film lovers out there who won’t be utterly fascinated by Be Natural, and might even be annoyed the documentary exists. As for me? Be Natural is the best doc I’ve seen this year so far.
Grade = A