I have seen the most pertinent, timely, touching and inspiring movie in Cannes this year, and for my money the best in the fest. So why do I feel hardly anyone saw it, even if among its executive producers are Robert Redford, Hugh Hefner and John Ptak, and features a who’s who of on-camera participants?
So why is no one talking about it? Try to find a review of it in the trades or anywhere and you will have to search hard. Those critics apparently would rather rush to see the new Lars von Trier or the Gaspar Noe, than give notice to this incredible woman who not only started it all for her gender in movies, but really pioneered it for everyone — man or woman. This film needs to be seen and distributed, and after blowing off the main competition film and attending its one — and only — screening (other than privately for potential buyers) at the 71st Cannes Film Festival on Friday night, I immediately told every heavy-hitter distribution and studio person I saw an hour later at the Hotel Du Cap Lionsgate party to try and find it and see it if you care at all about movies, women, groundbreakers and great documentary filmmaking.
The film is called Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché, and it was directed, edited and co-written (with Joan Simon) by Emmy-nominated Pamela B. Green and largely funded with Kickstarter and the kindness of strangers and sympathetic movers and shakers like Redford (whose Wildwood Enterprises is listed as a production company) and the late Hefner, a film aficionado. Remember the name Pamela B. Green because if there is any justice you will be hearing it at the Oscars next spring in the Documentary Feature category where, in a year where women are making waves in the industry, this story of the first-ever female director goes back to the beginning of movies but is about as relevant as it gets.
It 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 Bunuel 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.
Guy-Blaché was in fact a contemporary of Thomas Edison, the Lumieres and Melies — all the men we have always credited with essentially inventing
movies. But, after starting as a secretary to Leon Gaumont at his famed company in France, she was elevated to writer, director and producer of over 1,000 films, from her first narrative movie in 1896 and for the next 20 years. She even became the equivalent of a powerful studio executive who was there when all the majors started in Fort Lee, NJ. She did about 150 of her films with synchronized sound decades before talkies came in, and even had tinted color in many of them. Essentially she also invented the concept of story in film and told human tales that had never been seen and were way ahead of their time in some instances dealing with topics like immigration, child abuse, the empowerment of women and feminism, and even planned parenthood(!) And in the year of Black Panther, one of her films is in fact the earliest surviving movie with an all-black cast (which by the way was out of necessity since the white actors she had cast refused to work on screen with “colored” people at the time). She was even doing music videos about 80 years before MTV came along.
Jodie Foster is another executive producer on the film and also narrates it (appropriate since she has become a fine director herself). When I recently interviewed her for my Deadline video series Behind the Lens, I nearly stopped tape, stunned, when she said she had only been directed by a woman once in her 50-year acting career. Everyone from Agnes Varda to Peter Farrelly, from Julie Taymor to Patty Jenkins, from Ben Kingsley to Geena Davis and countless others are interviewed in Be Natural, commenting on the films of Guy-Blaché after Green provided those film that still survive (many are in the Library of Congress, or in the hands of collectors) to view, while most admit they had never before heard of Alice Guy-Blaché — even savvy filmmaker/film historian Peter Bogdanovich said he hadn’t.
Green presents all of this as a setup for the film which tries to trace Guy-Blaché’s ancestry to those still living with a familial connection to
her. The subject herself is charmingly seen in her later years in one 1957 black-and-white interview, as well as an audio interview from 1964. The archival materials are fascinating, and we even get to follow Guy-Blaché as she goes to New York and then Washington D.C. in the late ’50s in search of her lost films, trying in vain, now long out of the industry, to establish her remarkable career after so many books — including the history of Gaumont itself — had no mention of her or her contributions. The end credits note that about a dozen more Guy-Blache films, thought lost, were found during production of the documentary.
The title Be Natural refers to the large sign she put on her film sets to remind actors to keep it real. Hopefully the movie named after that sign will not go the way of Alice Guy-Blaché’s forgotten motion picture legacy and live on as a stirring document of an amazing filmmaker of either gender. Finally.