Film review ‘BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY BLACHE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache is the remarkable story of French/ Chilean and later American, Alice Guy Blache, possibly the first female film director, producer and film company owner. She was there at cinema’s conception in 1895 with the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison and according to this documentary was more prolific than all of them. Strangely, in the 1920’s she disappeared from the filmmaking map and seemed to have been forgotten despite her vast contribution to cinema. The documentary, narrated by Jodie Foster, adopts the style of a forensic investigation as it chases her story, following leads, tracking down distant family members and unearthing artefacts from Alice’s life and a lost film making history.

Those who love seeing lost cinematic archives uncovered will rejoice in the interviews with Alice from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Those more averse to crackly old footage will be pleased to know that Alice’s story is often presented as an elaborate but clear visual montage with rapid-fire images of film excerpts, documents, interviews and even computer searches.

What the film reveals is a highly intelligent, resourceful and driven woman who loved cinema but met numerous barriers including sexism and the irresponsible actions of those around her. She was a true auteur, as well as directing, she sought expertise in all aspects of film-making including the business side as she, along with her husband, established Solax Studios in the 1920’s in New York and New Jersey.

Also, at a time when much of cinema involved dull shots of trains and daily life, she created one of the first narrative films, The Cabbage Fairy (1896) which, while ground-breaking, involved some rather uncomfortable use of children. Film academics interviewed here also claim she may have pioneered many cinematic techniques including close-ups, colourisation and even sound.

Alice was, at times, a provocative and socially conscious filmmaker as she addressed important issues like anti-Semitism and domestic violence, made the first film with an all African American cast and explored issues such as planned parenthood. Alice also showed a taste for risqué comedy and even had a film called Race for the Sausage.

Has Alice been largely overlooked in cinema history (at least in the US, she is apparently still revered in Europe) because of sexism, misfortune, a paradigm shift from New York to the west coast of the US or because her output, while large, varied and technically innovative simply didn’t capture enough of the public’s interest? It would be very hard to answer these questions definitively and the film doesn’t but it still reminds us of an astonishing movie maverick who deserves more credit than she received.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: G.

Director(s): Pamela B. Green.

Release date: 1st Aug 2019.

Running time: 103 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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