Women in Cinema: The Story of Alice Guy-Blache and ‘Be Natural’

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AliceGuyNo quote is more appropriate to women in cinema than the one said during the trailer for Be Natural, the upcoming documentary detailing the life of, Alice Guy-Blache: “History is written by men.”  This also applies to film history.  Guy-Blache was one of the first female filmmakers to direct movies during the origins of cinema itself; she would go on to found her own studio and even run for mayor.  Unfortunately, she’s been written out of or marginalized in countless history books which creates a necessary reason for Be Natural’s existence.  Be Natural director Pamela Green took time to talk to me about Alice and why her story is so important to reorient women in the history of film.

I first learned of Alice Guy-Blache when a comment came to me via Twitter asking if I knew  the first female director in history.  This is a common question Pamela Green and co-director Jarik Van Sluijs have been asking as they work through their documentary, Be Natural.  While audiences today are unaware of Guy-Blache’s legacy, Pamela Green has had her on the brain for 12 years since learning Guy-Blache’s name during a television documentary entitled, Reel Models: The First Women of Film hosted by Barbra Streisand: “I happened to click on the channel and it started talking about Alice – it was a very little snippet – and I was sold.”

Guy-Blache is a figure to aspire to for all female directors.  Guy-Blache worked on over 1000 films in her life (living from 1873-1968), and eventually created Solax Studios.   The creation of her own studio aside I was most fascinated by her refusal to be categorized into one genre (then again, there were no genres during this time period furthering her pioneering credibility); she wasn’t going to do romances because she was a woman.  Green ran through a brief history of the various genres Guy-Blache worked in throughout her life: “she made a religious film – The Life of Christ [which is] 33-minutes long in 1906.  She made Making an American Citizen about the treatment of women in the US.  She made a film called A Man’s a Man where she presented Jews in a positive life.  She adapted Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, Emile Zola; a lot of comedies; she worked with animals.  The body of work to be directing and the head of production is massive.  She really explored.”

As with all films shot during the beginnings of movie-making, Alice’s films aren’t widely available.  (You can currently watch A Fool BeNaturalMovieand His Money on Fandor; her work will also be shown on TCM September 2nd.)  However, it was the films that prove Guy-Blache’s existence – and Green’s interest in the project – and for the early 1900s Green took note of Guy-Blache’s perceptiveness: “I was very impressed in the way she looked at society and questioned it; she really felt there was a place for women in films and directing.”  Guy-Blache also led the way in cementing her own legacy, or at least presenting herself as a beacon to what women could accomplish in the early 1900s.  The formation of her studio Solax has been mentioned, but she also ran for mayor and lectured at Columbia University.  She also explored feminism – albeit the “bad side” – in her 1906 film, The Consequences of Feminism.  The very idea that a woman was exploring social issues in a time where women weren’t allowed to vote is astounding.

The formation of the film industry is often cited as being created by Thomas Edison, and/or the Lumiere Brothers.  Even modern fans of classic films look at male stars of the silent era, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as “forefathers” to cinema and have to be reminded that “[Guy-Blache] made her first film in 1896 and the ending of her career was Chaplin’s beginning.  She was early, early, early” as Green was kind enough to remind me.  Be Natural is an important way to showcase Alice’s journey and rewrite history to favor men and woman; as Green explained, “She represents so much because she had all these different roles…these layers that [make] you constantly excited all over again.  It’s this portal to take you back to this time to open up all these other Pandora Boxes that people don’t know about.”

One question that bothers me about the struggle for Be Natural success is whether Hollywood is ignoring small, female-focused films  because of their female subject matter.  In a time when females aren’t leading films on-screen, what are the odds of a female director who lived over 100 years ago succeeding as a documentary for a national audience?  Green doesn’t place the blame on femininity, but more on audiences being disinterested in the amount of time that’s elapsed: “When you hear somebody was around 100 years ago, and was the director of her own studio people say ‘Oh, okay, so what?’”  The added hindrance is also a lack of material to watch.  Alice’s films aren’t widely dispensed, and haven’t benefited from a restoration or release.  There have been various books written on Alice, and a museum exhibit – which Green found to be limited in scope – but none of those benefit from the broad-scale dissemination that a film provides.

It wasn’t until 2009 that a woman was able to secure the Oscar for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker).  Women as directors have enjoyed limited success, and what success they do have isn’t in blockbusters.  I’ve discussed the roles of women in particular genres, but women certainly aren’t leading the march in big-budget action movies.  For Green, storytelling is genderless: “Storytelling comes from all walks of life, whether it’s male or female.”  While she agrees that women are more than capable of directing action films, they aren’t presented with enough opportunities to do so.  Green believes women just need to become storytellers; instead of women refraining from directing altogether “they’ll go ahead and tell stories just to tell stories if they have to do it in the independent world.”  Green does give credit to the female writers of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight as evidence of a broadening world for female writers but it’s a different world to write a book that can be adapted for screen, and being a woman directing the films themselves (no female directors worked on Harry Potter or Hunger Games, while only one woman shot a Twilight feature).  For Green, audiences aren’t hearing about women directors enough because their work is generally resigned to the independent or international market (of which I’d agree).

What about Green herself, a woman successfully running her own company (she runs the Pic Agency with co-director Van Sluijs)?  Her credits include visual effects on diverse fare like Cabin in the Woods, The Kingdom and 42, all of which work with her desire to tell stories and evoke a certain time.  To her, a fascinating aspect of working with Guy-Blache’s story was evoking a time period and exploring who Alice was as a human being: “That is how we went about it going by certain things and deconstruct[ing] the story of what went on, so we can feel like we were there.  She takes you back in time…”  Green herself hopes to continue working, whether “it’s title sequences or more documentaries.”  She and Van Sluijs even have plans to do a feature-film on Alice at some point.  Regardless, she will continue to develop her storytelling style and isn’t done yet: “I always tell people at the end that I’ll get my detective’s license and then I’m done.”

Be Natural has amassed $219,263 dollars; successfully funding the remaining research but failing to achieve the extra $40,000 “flex goal” they had to secure licensing rights for Alice’s films, as well as various books and other materials.  Thankfully, fans continue to donate time and money, becoming a second family to the group working on the project.  What is the next step in the story of Alice Guy-Blache?  For Be Natural it’s the assembly of a rough cut: “The next step is to start building a rough cut and see if we can get access to the films.  In addition, we need to get more financing because it’s not going to be enough to continue, but the money that we’re raising can allow us to get access to the films [and] look at them side-by-side.  The media has taken note of this project (recently acquiring time on UpWorthy.com and CNN), so hopefully Alice Guy-Blache won’t be limited to who will be able to enjoy it.  I can say I know Alice Guy-Blache, and hopefully this inspires other female directors to follow their passions and enter directing.  It’s an uphill battle, but well worth it.

You can learn more or donate to Be Natural’s cause by visiting BeNaturalMovie.com