Review of Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)
Six years ago, I made a pledge to a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary Be Natural. There have been some bumps in the road for supporters, which is to be expected for a passion project, I suppose: some of the perks never arrived, some were disappointing, and some have yet to arrive (promised post–home video release). It seems creators Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs had more success in the campaign and developments with the film than they had anticipated. I applaud them. They’ve brought a major project to fruition.
However, when I finally got to see it at one of only three Toronto screenings, I was underwhelmed. This was mostly due to its inaccessibility but also its overall direction. Then I learned more about the premise of Alice being “discovered” by the filmmakers. I’d like to share some thoughts on this film because I’ve yet to see a review online that wasn’t bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, and I think some balance in its reception is merited.
Robert Redford and narrator Jodie Foster are listed as two of the executive producers, which gives it some cachet, I expect. However, direction by Green is problematic. As a backer, I got to see teasers and contacted the production company about issues with the subtitling as it stood then; I did not get a reply. The final product is less than accessible to several groups of people.
The music is far too loud and drowns out other elements, making it hard to follow the extremely fast pace of the doc. There are some interesting ideas for indicating sources—for example, audio tape via a little icon in the corner of the screen—but often these are more cute than necessary, adding clutter to a busy screen; I found it hard to watch such indicators, plus maps, dynamic travel routes, superimposed pictures and image captions, and subtitles. The viewer must be resigned to picking and choosing what information they want to take in, which is a shame because it’s quite interesting.
I wish I could have acted as a consultant for them on the function and form of effective captions and subtitles. In fact, there are no captions at all for the film because of the overcrowded shots, so right off the bat the film is not available to Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing viewers, or any other group who uses captions. Also, the subtitles are full of bad line breaks and inconsistencies. The worst practice is when the text was deemed worthy to highlight, it is often presented in a cursive font in paragraph form across the width of the screen, making it difficult to read, particularly as there is a great deal of figured background used. Also, the reading speed required for the longer excerpts is too high given the font and form. Accessibility to the French audio is therefore very poor through the subtitling.
The other unfortunate directorial choice made is the pace of the overall contents. Understandably, the creators wanted to share as much of Alice’s history as possible within the time available, and the story is fascinating. But too much of the search efforts are shown, so that clips from Alice’s films that are highlighted are on-screen for about one second (maybe two seconds) each. In that time, the viewer has to take in the visual and the captioned title and date before they are on to another example; a series of these make it impossible to really learn much about the films Guy-Blaché made, which I would have thought was a major goal of the documentary. So, the information itself is often inaccessible.
This is the type of film that would have benefited from subtitle editing (and captioning), and it could have been done if a director of accessibility and translation had been consulted, as recommended by Pablo Romero-Fresco. As it stands, there are multiple barriers to the documentary.
But that’s only what I gleaned from watching it. I’ve since learned that, in fact, Alice’s history has been under our noses all along. (Note to self: do your homework before backing on Kickstarter.) It turns out that there have been a few documentaries made about her already, including a 1996 Canadian doc and an eponymous 1997 German one. There’s also a book about her, Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan (2003). And there is no lack of knowledge and discussion about her in academia or the blogosphere/internet. So, the hype of discovering Alice is misplaced.
Alice’s life is an interesting topic to cover in a documentary film, to be sure, but Be Natural seems a bit meta, focusing more on Green’s journey to find Alice than being excited to share the story in a well-paced exposition of Alice’s story. I came away feeling I had missed a lot of the audio and visual in it and retained bare bones. Another audience member asked me afterwards if I remembered the location of the Solax studio, and we decided we’d have to google it when we got home. (It was Fort Lee, New Jersey.)
I feel like the film festival and critical hype is due to others not having done their homework, either. It’s a nice film, but it’s not earth-shattering in form or as provenance. Since it’s so hard to find screenings, why not find some clips of her films on YouTube or watch this introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché on Vimeo? The captions here aren’t perfect either, but the video allows you the time to appreciate the creative and technical contributions Alice made in a man’s industry a hundred years ago.
PS: I did have to laugh at one clip that was shown long enough to take in. In the 1913 A House Divided, about a separated couple living together, there’s some acrimony. Plus ça change…