If you have an interest in the history cinema, you may be familiar with the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, but there is a third name just as vital to the conception of the art form that has been struck from the records and lost from history. Be Natural’s director-come-detective, Pamela Green, shows us this forgotten filmmaker with white hair and charisma to spare, in an armchair interview from 1964. We are brought face to face with the woman who was amongst the first to develop narrative film, techniques of editing, special effects and even the industry system itself.
An overture before the opening credits gives us the low-down on everything that will be covered in the next hour and forty minutes; the story of twenty-two-year-old secretary Alice Guy Blaché who attended a private demonstration of the cinematographé in 1895 and witnessed the canonical birth of cinema. The adventure that followed quite literally changed the world, but it becomes increasingly obvious how rapidly she was blacked out of the records purely out of spite. As one of her associates noted, “They respected her, but, I think, also resented a woman succeeding as a writer, director and producer of movies.”
What is heralded by the modern filmmakers interviewed is the realism of her stories; Be Natural refers to the sign she hung in her studio, revolutionary because it developed acting on camera as distinct from ‘posing for pictures’ in storytelling. Inevitably, Green meditates on Alice’s femininity and the unique impact it had on cinema at the time. She was writing heroines at the helm of war films and Westerns, placing little girls at the heights of mad escapades, and even showing men doing the ironing (call the police, this has gone too far!). And indeed, Alice’s films were particularly controversial when she produced the film with the first-ever all-black cast, or explored planned parenthood, child abuse, and immigration.
With such a rich supply of information to play with, you get the feeling Green was a little overwhelmed. Rushed at the beginning in its desire to paint a whole life story, but intent to delve into the personality and style of Alice’s entire filmography, Be Natural starts to become an investigative thriller into a woman we’ve already been introduced to. Complete with pins in maps, scribbled family trees, snappy editing and tense music, there’s a point where you wonder if a spontaneous murder is going to be revealed. While it’s a fascinating look at how research so deep develops, it derails the film’s focus for a little while.
The obvious omission, then, is the film’s lack of a finishing line in sight. It becomes more of a timeline of Alice’s life than an investigation of much else. With no clear goal set, we seem to amble through the fascinating but ultimately cobbled-together interviews, sepia footage and loose connections. Pamela could have been the missing key to this, highlighting the parallel between the first female cinematic voice and what it means for her name to be recovered to contemporary women in the industry. What eventually arises is less ambitious but no less noble; to humanise this nameless figure into Alice.
Though a little jumbled, discovering the career of the first female filmmaker is well worth the time invested, even if the documentary itself isn’t such a masterpiece. Alice Guy Blaché echoes Ann Richards’ famous quote; that “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” Only Alice does it in corsets and with no clear rules about how to even go about creating cinema. Businesswoman and artist both, the first female filmmaker is revealed in full glory through Green’s efforts.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.