Review: Be Natural is an expert telling of the first female director's erasure from history 5 months ago

Review: Be Natural is an expert telling of the first female director's erasure from history

"Women climbed mountains wearing corsets, they could definitely make movies wearing them."

One of the first directors to ever shoot a narrative film was a woman - and you've probably never heard of her.

Directed by Pamela B. Green and narrated by Jodie Foster, Be Natural tells the widely untold story of Alice Guy Blaché - the woman believed to be the first female director in the world.

With a career spanning from the late nineteenth century, across the birth of silent cinema all the way until the talkies were in full swing, Guy Blaché was a pioneer of the film industry.

And yet the vast majority of people - including those who have spent their lives dedicated to studying film - have never heard of her.

The documentary is not just a biopic, but a deep dive into Guy Blaché's life before and after her reign across early cinema.

A detective story woven alongside details of an incredible career, the documentary doesn't just hunt for the pioneer's remaining living relatives, but looks for an answer to the question that has plagued director Green for years.

Who was Alice Guy Blaché - and why has she been practically erased from the history of cinema?

Alice Guy Blaché, 1912

Green spent over eight years trying to find a straight answer.

She tracked down distant relatives of Guy Blaché's, she spoke to historians, she poured over hours of reels containing the French woman's work in an attempt to find out who she was - and why she disappeared.

Believed to have written, directed, and produced one of the first narrative films ever, Guy Blaché wasn't just a first for women in cinema - she was a first for cinema. 

During the industry's beginnings, women being so heavily involved in the art wasn't seen as groundbreaking or even important. Rather, it was just normal.

What wasn't normal, however, was Guy Blaché's dedication to her work - and her motivation to create something new. Instead of making films about mundane everyday occurrences, she wanted to tell stories.

Green's documentary captures this distinct ambition and willingness to go above and beyond the norm.

Where others were subduing female characters, Guy Blaché gave them starring roles. Where comedy was often preserved for male performers, Guy Blaché allowed women to be funny. Where racism largely dominated the film industry, Guy Blaché made the first ever film starring an all African-American cast.

Her desire to be different was glaring apparent. And it was all contained in the sign she had erected for the actors in her studio.

"Be Natural," it read.

Still from The Black Butterfly, produced by Guy Blaché, 1916

Foster, who herself bears her fair share of directing and producing credits, said that she found it incredible that so many people (including herself) had never heard of Guy Blaché.

“When Pamela Green first talked to me about Alice Guy Blaché I thought, ‘how is it possible that I’ve never heard of her?’" she said.

"As fas as we know, she is the first female film director, possibly one of the first narrative filmmakers ever. A writer, producer, studio head, with a 1000 films under her belt.

"The facts in this documentary blew my mind. It’s an honour to voice this story. May Alice’s story finally set the record straight and restore her place in cinema history.”

And so it does. Green's documentary provides an in-depth examination of Guy Blaché's life that has never before been so expertly composed for the screen.

A remarkable level of research coupled with artefacts, diary entries, and tidbits of information from Guy Blaché's archive presents a story that isn't just eight years in the making, but over a century.

Towards the end of her life, Guy Blaché began trying to set to record straight.

She refuted claims that her most successful films - like 1896's The Cabbage Fairy - were directed by men. She denied baselessly trying to take credit for other people's work. She defended her irreplaceable contribution to early cinema when nobody else would.

In a last ditch attempt to reclaim her art, Guy Blaché tried to release her memoirs. It was only after her death in 1968 that a publisher agreed to print them.

Still from From When You And I Were Young, directed by Guy Blaché, 1917

Green said that now seemed like the right time to publish her own findings, finally presenting a comprehensive view of Guy Blaché's life and work that has long been lost on critics and students alike.

And during a time when only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director (and only five women have ever been nominated), she may just be right.

"I felt like now was the right time, more than ever, to step forward and help bring Alice’s story to light," Green said last year ahead of the film's release.

"More often than not, women’s stories are pushed to the shadows throughout history.

"My hope is that this film furthers the conversation around how necessary women are to the art of cinema (...) There were many, many women filmmakers in the early years but history has forgotten them. It’s time to change that."

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blaché is officially released in the UK and Ireland on January 17.

You can check out the trailer below: