November 13, 2019

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Early 'lady filmmaker' overlooked by historians

Documentary offers passionate portrait of narrative film pioneer

If this compelling documentary were only about the achievements of Alice Guy-Blaché, an artist, entrepreneur and pioneer of early cinema, it would still be crucial viewing.

In Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, American-born filmmaker Pamela Green gives a sharp, vivid specificity to Guy-Blaché’s vision. She also makes a larger argument about the uses and abuses of history. In particular, Green anatomizes the case of Guy-Blaché to show how women are often written out of official accounts, their work silenced and their lives effaced.

Be Natural Productions photo</p><p>Guy-Blache’s legacy has largely disappeared from film history, while her innovations are often credited to her husband or colleagues.</p>

Be Natural Productions photo

Guy-Blache’s legacy has largely disappeared from film history, while her innovations are often credited to her husband or colleagues.

Guy-Blaché started out as a secretarial assistant at the Gaumont camera and photography company. In 1896, she made what might be the first-ever narrative film, The Cabbage Fairy. She experimented with sync-sound, hand-tinting and special effects, but her most important innovation was the realization that moving pictures could be used to tell stories.

In the next 20 years, she made knockabout comedies and hair-raising westerns. She also dealt with serious social issues such as birth control, child abuse, anti-Semitism and the immigrant experience. Her cheeky 1906 comedy The Consequences of Feminism influenced Eisenstein.

While this "lady filmmaker" often made headlines while she was working, her legacy after the 1920s, as academics and critics started to shape the official canon of cinema, largely disappeared. Her work would often be credited to her feckless husband, her male assistant or one of her actors. Even in the 1970s, some French film experts condescended to her, dismissing her films as amiable, derivative little efforts.

Reclaiming Guy-Blaché’s history takes a lot of detective work on Green’s part, and rather than just present us with the final evidence, she brings us along. Using clever animation and graphics, she gives visual form to dense information, turning what could seem like dogged research into snappy cinema.

Be Natural occasionally wanders, but in the end it offers a passionate portrait of a remarkable woman, a necessary historical corrective and an urgent argument for the importance of film preservation.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Wisconsin Centre for Film and Theater Research</p><p>Alice Guy-Blaché, who began her career at the dawn of the film industry in the early 1890s, made comedies and westerns, but also dealt with serious social issues from birth control to the immigrant experience.</p>

Wisconsin Centre for Film and Theater Research

Alice Guy-Blaché, who began her career at the dawn of the film industry in the early 1890s, made comedies and westerns, but also dealt with serious social issues from birth control to the immigrant experience.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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