How The World's First Female Director Was Erased From History

Photo: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.
Alice Guy
Between 1896 and 1920, Alice Guy directed, produced, or commissioned nearly 1,000 movies. As one of the first film directors ever — but also studio owner, producer, writer and editor— she helped to shape the future of narrative features, developed many of the techniques we still use today, and oversaw a burgeoning film industry, first in her homeland of France, and then in the United States. And until very recently, almost no one had ever heard of her.
In what feels like an all-too familiar story, Guy was largely erased from film history in favour of her male contemporaries, including mentor Léon Gaumont, and husband Herbert Blaché. Many of her films — including The Cabbage Fairy, arguably the first narrative film ever made — were attributed to men that she had hired and trained, and though she attempted to reclaim her reputation during her own lifetime, she died in obscurity in Wayne, N.J., in 1968.
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But a new documentary by director Pamela B. Green is now seeking to right that wrong. Narrated by Jodie Foster, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché paints a vibrant and compelling portrait of a fascinating woman, who broke the rules in a time when it was nearly impossible to do so. Green worked for nearly a decade to piece together Guy’s full story, unearthing old archives, transferring unseen nitrate films onto digital platforms, and tracking down the director’s descendants in a desperate attempt for information.
And while that alone would make for a fascinating viewing experience, Green does an excellent job of weaving Guy’s tale into a larger context of women’s erasure. Interviews with the likes of Ava DuVernay, John Chu, Evan Rachel Wood, and Peter Farrelly drive home the modernity of this nearly hundred-year-old piece of film history.
Ahead, we talked to Green about her quest to fact-check Guy’s life, her own struggles within the industry, and what we can learn from the first woman director.
Refinery29: The film shows how it’s almost too easy to erase women from history when they’re not in control of the narrative. There are so many other women there are out there whose achievements have been totally glossed over.
Pamela B. Green: “It’s funny, when I was working on this, my grandmother was alive at the time, and I was very close with her — she reminds me of Alice a little bit. She couldn’t believe that nobody was doing a piece on this, and she turned to me and said: ‘How many more are out there? Can you imagine?’ And in my research, not only did I find women inventing things in the medium of film, but so many other areas where they were never documented.”
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It’s similar to the story of Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, and recent efforts to add her and her inventions back into the history books. She was seen as just another movie star, but she basically invented Wi-Fi.
“Because she didn’t promote herself, and that’s [an] embedded thing about women. We weren’t taught to promote ourselves. Back then, it was definitely not acceptable.
“It wakes up a part [of] you that you didn’t even think existed. Like, ‘Why am I so upset about this?’ You realize these are things that you’re not addressing, because you consider it the norm. But it’s not the norm, and it’s not okay. That’s one of the things that led me to do this. It brought up all these feelings inside, [because] I had my own struggles in the industry but I didn’t even realize it at the moment, and I had to rewire my whole way of thinking. Because I never even thought about a first woman director, honestly. It was just like an earthquake in my brain. It’s bigger than just her story.”
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.
Pamela B. Green
You were talking about your own struggles in the industry that echoed Alice’s journey. What was it like funding and pitching this film? Did you get any pushback?
“When I decided to take this on, I was writing my own checks, and then I couldn’t write them anymore because I didn’t have the money to do it. And nobody in Hollywood was interested. I had a lot of mansplaining happen: ‘What do you know about funding? What do you know about editing? What do you know about making a documentary?’ I was constantly put down and discouraged that I wouldn’t be able to make it, and also that nobody would want to see it.
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“ I just kept taking on more roles in the film. I’d never edited a film before. It was a lot of firsts for me too. I had to give up part of my day job stuff, my company, to balance both. I had to get up every morning at 4 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. It was really difficult. And of course, I wanted to give up. But I also had amazing supporters: Joan Simon, who I ended up co-writing the film with, and Robert Redford was the first person to support the film and stand behind it. From there, I contacted Jodie [Foster] because she spoke fluent French. The Geena Davis Institute head saw the Kickstarter, and so many women philanthropists came on board, and then we contacted [USC] Hugh Hefner [Archive of The Moving Image] to pay for this excavation. It was very much an Indiana Jones [endeavour], trying to pull these films out from all over the world, and going through her address book to find descendants was really intense. I was obsessed! I had a spell on me I guess. Because once you fall in love with Alice, that’s it. You’ll do anything for her.”
Right, this is also a film about the importance and difficulties of archiving. What was the most challenging part of that?
“When I started, 130 films of hers existed out of 1,000. But you couldn’t see them because they were in a different format. One of the things that I did was convince the archives to get them off the shelves around the world and allow me to pay to get them transferred. I spoke to someone at the Museum in Amsterdam for probably a year and change to get her to agree to ship a film on nitrate to me, so UCLA could hold on to it, and then I would raise the funds to transfer it. That whole process took like two-and-a-half years. There was a film at the Library of Congress, but nobody had seen it!
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“Imagine that, in 62 archives, on top of doing the interviews. I took her memoirs — they’re wonderful, and in English. It sounds like she’s not even a real person; she’s like a character in a novel. But I wanted to know if it was [all] real, so I wrote down every single person she mentioned, every single street, and I created an Excel file and went after everything in the memoirs. And then her address book from the 50s, going through it, and hoping there would be some descendants that were alive that would remember her, that could talk about her. That’s how I found the new material. I was determined to prove that what she’s saying is correct, but also what was driving this movie to get the funding was finding the new material.”
How long did the whole process take, from beginning to end?
“Close to a decade, total. Insane, I know. Now, I’m bored.”
In the documentary, you show some of Alice’s films that are focused on gender inequality, and you also quote this op-ed by famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons from 1927 calling for more women directors. Were you surprised at how prescient it all feels given what’s going on in Hollywood today?
“It was a repeat of something that already happened. We were going in circles. For the woman director thing, when I read that, I was just like ‘This just can’t be true.’ And then [Alice’s] work is unbelievably astonishing. Not everything is a masterpiece of course, but the subject matter is so risqué, and it doesn’t only give me a picture of her, it gives me a picture about the era — that what we think we knew is not correct. People did travel a lot; people did talk about this stuff; there were things that were happening back then that feel contemporary. They just didn’t have the tools [to do much about it], but they were discussed. It’s showing that history has a lot of holes, and is missing a lot of women that need to be recorded and documented. A lot of these eras need to be revisited with a fresh pair of eyes.”
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Reassessing the canon feels like a really big part of that process — at least when it comes to film.
“Exactly — women were pushed out and it became a male-dominated industry, with Wall Street, but also male filmmakers. Therefore, there’s no room for content from the perspective of a woman. The whole AFI catalogue is [male], and somebody on Twitter was saying ‘Oh, it’s because women weren’t making movies that were good enough.’ No! It’s because women didn’t have the film distribution, and you probably didn’t see them. Same thing with Alice — how can you judge the work of this woman if you haven’t seen it? And my whole point was to make sure that it was seen.”
You make an interesting comparison between early film and YouTube videos — can you tell me more about that?
“When I was looking at her films, they looked like skits to me; SNL digital shorts, something that you would pass around in your office that you would see on YouTube. So, when I came up with that, academics that I talked to said: ‘You can’t say that, that’s not true, blah blah blah.’ It took me two years to find the professor that talks about it [in the film]. Anything that I came up with, I wanted to make sure had some kind of legitimacy. But it was in my mind for a long time, and I wanted to interview Andy Samberg. It took three years for that to happen. This was something I thought would connect us to something from a hundred years ago, and be relatable to an audience, versus just showing films and photos that play for eternity, and you just want to press pause and leave the room.”
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It’s definitely fun to feel like you’re learning about Alice at the same time as all these other famous people, and we’re all excited about her together.
“Peter Farrelly, for example, came in with a piece of paper and had all the films written down, and he just couldn’t stop getting excited! He was like ‘ And this was before The Three Stooges! And this part, and the kid, and the boy!’ This was before Green Book. Some of these interviews were done five years ago. So, it’s interesting to see the passion in these people, and then go ‘Oh, well, that worked out.’ I got lucky.
“She was a comedic director, she was a director, writer, producer, studio owner. How do you break somebody like that down to a modern audience, unless you find the best of the best that would be somewhat her contemporaries to represent her today? “
We’ve talked a lot about making early film appealing to a younger audience. What do you hope young women will take away from the film?
“I want them to know that there were many women at the beginning of cinema. I want them to know that most likely there were many women on many of these inventions all across different industries. I want them to be strong, be determined, and visualize and go out there and make it happen. Because if you set your mind to it, and you work hard, you can do anything. Alice is definitely the example of that.”
“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” is in theatres now.
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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