Fifty years after her death at age 94 in Wayne, N.J., pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché made it, finally, to the Cannes Film Festival. She was the subject of the documentary feature Be Natural, an eight-year-long “obsessive” labor of love for its director, Pamela B. Green. The film screened in the Cannes Classics section of the festival, which was celebrating its 71st year.
The film’s premiere could not have been timelier. It has been a year of overdue recognition for the work of women filmmakers, including the 82 who stood in ranks on the Cannes red carpet, claiming their due in filmmaking’s revised canon. Agnès Varda, age 89, was among them; Alice Guy, were she still alive, would have been front and center.
Alice Guy-Blaché’s motto, “Be Natural,” hung on her studio sets as a directive to her actors, challenging them to cast aside the overwrought stage traditions of early 20th century moviemaking. Almost from the beginning, in her first one-shot film from 1896, The Cabbage Patch Fairy, Guy possessed an innate sense of the intimacy of the motion-picture camera.
Green’s ambitious documentary has experienced considerable structural metamorphosis since she first produced a trailer to raise funds for the project five years ago. This trailer presents the biographical outline of the film in a self-described “Nancy Drew” investigative style while using many of the animation techniques Green employs in her day job as the head of PIC Agency, a motion-picture design and editorial company in Los Angeles.
Be Natural was shown at Cannes in a fine cut, but it is still unfinished. Green needs funds to complete her movie: graphics, animation, narration, clip rights, lab fees, sound design, color correction and music.
In an interview with New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, the question of completion money comes up:
When I asked what the chances were that she could get more money to finish, Ms. Green wasn’t optimistic. ‘Difficult, believe it or not — I mean we talk about the #MeToo and Time’s Up, etc.; Hollywood has not funded this movie,’ she said. ‘All the people who have come forward are outside the business.’ Ms. Green, who discovered a trove of material while making the documentary — old letters, photographs — said that she planned to start a foundation named for the filmmaker. Ms. Green wants to help in the restoration of Guy Blaché’s films and make them accessible, doing her part to write a woman back into the history she helped make.
In a room overlooking the Croisette, Green gave a brief interview to France 24, and in it she reveals how she first heard of Guy:
Be Natural begins as a biographical search but quickly becomes a quasi-forensic case of cinematic archeology. Green’s growing curiosity, aided by her intrepid crew, leads her into a multi-continent search to uncover more information about the woman lost in time and in the giant shadows cast by her male contemporaries in France, the Lumières and George Méliès.
Green talked about this journey in a longer video interview by Antonia Blyth for Deadline Hollywood.
Green recruited me early in her journey to find Guy’s relatives, photos, papers and films. One unusual goal she had was to re-create one of the director’s early single-shot films using a hand-cranked French camera of that period.
Dino Everett, the Hugh Hefner Archivist in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, is the custodian of an awesome trove of historic movie equipment, and he led me into the bowels of his equipment-storage rooms and helped me find several early cameras, which we tested and ultimately used to re-create Guy’s film At the Photographer’s (1900).
Another Deadline reporter, Pete Hammond, picked up on our search and noted its relation to those 82 women filmmakers who had stood on the Cannes red carpet a few days earlier:
[Be Natural] would seem irresistible, and even prominently features Academy President John Bailey (charmingly going in search of one of the first movie cameras) among its many interviewees and participants. But who is Alice Guy- Blaché and why has this trailblazing pioneer of the movie industry been largely forgotten, her important historical contributions rewritten by men over the decades, her films gone with the wind? What Green has done is essentially structure this as a detective story wrapped up as a biopic and it all works in a movie that had me in tears by the time it ended. Yet the Buñuel Theatre, where it was shown in a primetime slot, wasn’t even remotely full, as it should have been, because Alice Guy-Blaché’s remarkable career is exactly what all those 82 women filmmakers (including jury president Cate Blanchett and all the jury’s female members) gathered in protest on the red-carpeted steps of the Palais on Saturday night are talking about (not to mention the gender-equality pledge Cannes toppers signed today). Yet none of them, or most of them (jury member Ava DuVernay is actually interviewed in the film) have probably ever heard of Guy-Blaché or the movie so briefly in Cannes that aims to change that sad fact. I certainly hadn’t, and clearly, I am not alone.
One of Guy’s films certain to be appreciated by women filmmakers is her 1906 role-reversal tale, The Consequences of Feminism, with scenes of men sewing at home and women carousing in a pub.
Guy was not unknown to film historians before Green began her search; a straightforward documentary had been made in France. Joan Simon, a feminist scholar who is featured in Green’s documentary, has written a monograph on Guy Blaché; Alison McMahan has written another.
Green’s unrelenting research has greatly expanded the historical and biographical record of Guy’s work, including papers, artifacts and films found in boxes and trunks of family belongings and memorabilia. One of the many delights of Be Natural is following the search and discovery in these numerous road trips to visit Guy’s contemporary relatives, some of whom knew very little about her.
In a video series titled Frame by Frame, Prof. Wheeler Winston Dixon of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln features an episode that presents a worthwhile thumbnail of Guy’s importance.
Prof. Dixon recently sent me an email in support of continuing research and writing about Guy.
It's good that once again, someone is taking up the cudgels for Guy — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I have been banging the drum for ages, and yet people just keep saying "Griffith, Griffith, Griffith," when in fact much of the film grammar he supposedly created originated with Guy, including the first two-reel film, deep-focus work, multiple planes of action within the frame — her gorgeous film LA VIE DU CHRIST, among others, is ample proof of this.
One of Guy’s breakthroughs was a sound-on-film technology called Phonoscène in 1905. It used a recorder synchronized with the camera. Here is a clip of the filmmaker on set (middle of the frame) shooting in the studio at Buttes-Chaumont.
I would like to give you a more accurate description of Green’s documentary about this extraordinary artist, but the work is shape-shifting, even chameleonic. It is not only a journey into Guy’s outer life, but also a deeply intimate investigation of her family, relations and colleagues in France and across the United States. It also affords entry into some unlikely film archives around the world. There is no guarantee the version of Be Natural that so captivated audiences and critics at Cannes will be exactly the same version that the always-searching Green guides to completion. But you can be certain it will be a mesmerizing journey of discovery into the work of this protean artist of early cinema.
Pamela Green can use your help. If you want to be part of this bold venture, visit the film’s website and make a donation. Alice would thank you.
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