BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ is a fascinating, history-packed doc, released by Zeitgeist Films/Fox Lorber, about the earliest decades of the film industry and more specifically the remarkably accomplished title figure -- a major pioneer and innovator of cinema beginning in the late 1800s and enduring decades thereafter until she left the industry and was mysteriously forgotten.
Filmmaker and dogged researcher Pamela Green worked nearly a decade to explore and deliver this thrilling yet somewhat angering story of Alice Guy-Blaché and the mystery surrounding so important a figure’s disappearance from film history memory. The trail of discovery crosses continents to many people, places and archives to reveal Guy-Blaché's remarkable artistic and technological achievements accrued during cinema's earliest years. Guy-Blaché amazingly directed, wrote, shot and produced about 1,000 films across many genres (musicals, westerns, race films, comedies, social issues, etc.), even innovating her works with tints, a kind of DIY synch sound in the "silent" era and special effects well before the SFX era. She was also first (or among the first) to embrace notions that movies could tell stories (the early Lumière films were mere doc snippets) and that actors must “be natural.” She embraced new subject matter in her works (e.g., child abuse, immigration, Planned Parenthood, and female empowerment, etc.) and further made film history with a narrative film that featured an all-African American cast. This French-born female film giant worked on both U.S. coasts and created her own film studio until, poof, she disappeared. Even today, as Green discovered, Guy-Blaché remains unknown so the mystery of her disappearance arises. In a patient but fiercely determined act of sleuthing (with help from academics, archivists, newly discovered Guy-Blaché relatives) and not quite divine resurrection, Green goes gumshoe to solve how such “ghosting” of one of cinema history’s most important players happened. Jodie Foster narrates.
Uncovers Guy-Blaché’s revolutionary insights into the new “picture business,” including inventive notion that the aborning moving picture craft, initially a matter of capturing action (e.g., exiting a factory, etc.), should tell “good stories” which her actors would then enhance by adhering to her unprecedented directorial dictate to “be natural.”
Many diverse important talking heads weigh in (Ben Kingsley, Robert Redford, Peter Farrelly, Geena Davis, Ava DuVernay, Michel Hazanavicius, Evan Rachel Wood, editor Walter Murch, Martin Scorsese, and on and on. Most, including man-about-film Peter Bogdanovich, confess that they weren’t aware of Guy-Blaché or her stature in the industry.
Delivers with WOW! (what outstanding work!) cinematic and emotional impact the enormity and importance of the moonwalk triumph, that was, uh, partially eclipsed by that same summer’s headline-stealing Woodstock Fest and Senator Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick tragedy/scandal.
Basic Film Career 101 lessons here relay the timeless importance of dumb plain luck, who you know, immense curiosity and commitment to take risks and work damn hard (Guy-Blaché’s first job was as secretary to Gaumont film dynasty founder Léon Gaumont and after her job afforded her a first look at a Lumière Bros. clip, she never looked back).
Newly-discovered footage of Guy-Blaché films and the subject herself, including rare audio recordings and a restored video interview enrich her portrait as does much input from contributors on the research, academic and archival side and newly-discovered family members. But a teensy red buoy also bobs as warning that this doc must be seen at least twice in order to take in so much of cinema history uncovered.