by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Last night I watched Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché on TCM — it is one of the most creative documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’ve been having trouble focusing on television lately, and this show not only grabbed my attention but energized my brain. The film is available to rent or buy at Amazon and other outlets. I bought a copy because I want to study how the documentary was made and to be sure I have a copy for the future.
Now I know most people won’t be interested in silent movies, or even a history of silent movies, but if you are interested in the history of film, storytelling, creativity, women’s rights, memory, unearthing history, or how to make a powerful documentary, then you will be interested in Alice Guy-Blaché.
Not only is Alice Guy-Blaché as important to the early cinema as better known filmmakers like D. W. Griffith but her career began right after the Lumière brothers gave their first presentation in 1895. Most of the creative people from the silent film era are forgotten, as are the films they produced. Be Natural is about how history forgets and remembers. Be Natural is also about how we tragically ignore women. Be Natural inspires viewers by reconstructing Alice Guy-Blaché’s reputation. On another level, I also enjoyed seeing how such historical sleuthing is persued. (It’s important we save everything.)
One of my hobbies is scanning old magazines, and the value of old magazines turned up in this film. Alice Guy-Blaché’s work was often written about while she was making her movies, so old magazines offer proof of what she accomplished. Even the early historians of the cinema overlooked these sources when they were writing the first books about the silent era. They interviewed men, and many, if not most of those men conveniently forgot the contributions of women. Those early histories of the silent film often attributed male directors to Alice’s films. Just imagine how pained Alice would have been when her own husband started grabbing her credit after they divorced.
Even if you don’t care about feminism, history, or movies, you should still consider watching this documentary. Modern documentaries have become very sophisticated in recent years, especially after Ken Burns. Quality documentaries often seem to follow the same techniques with emerging filmmakers trying to add a few new creative touches.
I felt Be Natural extended documentary techniques in several ways, and I think that’s partly due to the growing success of documentaries and even YouTube. Within the documentary, they pointed out that in the early days of cinema everyone was amateurs trying to figure out how to use the new invention, the movie camera, and today, YouTube is full of amateurs trying to figure out that new medium. This causes people to experiment, inspire, and even steal from each other, so we’re seeing a perfect storm of creativity.
Cheap technology allows bold individuals to compete with industry professionals. There’s all kinds of innovations going on in documentaries today. Be Natural has Hollywood support and is a slick production, yet it tells a very personal story on two levels. Upfront is the mystery of Alice Guy-Blaché, but behind the scenes is the story of how Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon track down her story. Their historical detective work is compelling and inspirational, and they include some of the details of how it was done, which I loved. Watching this film made me wish I had a subject I loved so much as they did.
I highly recommend Be Natural. “Be Natural” is a sign that Alice Guy-Blaché posted in her studio to inspire her actors. If you know anything about silent films then you’ll know that was one way she set herself apart.