Alice Guy: First Lady of Film

Trailblazing French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché was present at the birth of modern film, a contemporary of the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. In Alice Guy: First Lady of Film, writer–artist duo Catel & Bocquet draw on original research from late media critic Francis Lacassin to document Guy’s career as the first major woman filmmaker and a pioneer of her industry.

The graphic biography opens with Guy’s 1873 birth and childhood in Europe and Chile. Lively and outspoken, Alice has an early interest in acting that is deemed unsuitable by her middle-class French family. Instead of taking to the stage, she goes to work as a secretary for what will soon become the Gaumont Film Company. Catel and Bocquet depict the chaos of these early years of film, with competing firms squabbling to dominate the new market. In this cutthroat environment, Alice is able to demonstrate business acumen and gain professional standing despite her gender.

In addition to business savvy, Guy has a vision for what film could be—a vehicle for telling stories. She teams up with a cinematographer to film the 1896 film La Fée aux Choux, a fantasy of cabbage-patch babies that may have been the first narrative film. As Alice finds success directing films for Gaumont, she and her collaborators develop the conventions that will define their industry, from filming on location to creating special effects to hammering out the logistics of public film screenings.

Alice also grapples with the ethical issues that face any unregulated new industry. She must take decisive action when an underaged actress is sexually assaulted by an older male professional on her set, or when a script about bullfighting raises questions of filming animal cruelty. Alice’s status as a woman filmmaker informs the way she handles these challenges and inspires her to take risks, from an attempted collaboration with activist Rose Pastor Stokes on a film about family planning to the production of A Fool and His Money, likely the first film with an all-African American cast. 

Alice’s personal and professional life brings her to the United States, where she starts a family and New York-based studio with her husband, film producer Herbert Blaché. But their once-happy marriage ends in divorce, and business troubles bring Alice’s career to a premature close. Decades later, her role as a woman film pioneer has faded from memory: “The history of cinema has completely forgotten about me,” she tells Francis Lacassin.

Alice Guy’s story is an extraordinary one, and this biography is an exhaustive documentary source for information about her life. An appendix with a detailed timeline, bibliography and filmography, and 50 pages of biographical essays about historical figures depicted in the book makes this a valuable reference work for those interested in Alice Guy’s life and times.

As a casual reader, however, this book didn’t hook me. Catel’s elegant monochrome illustrations are versatile enough to capture both the domestic scenes of Alice’s personal life and the exciting variety of her film sets, but the story itself feels bogged down by the kitchen-sink detail of Bocquet’s script. A number of characters and episodes seem as if they’re present for the sake of completeness, giving the story a choppy, episodic quality. The result is a book that lacks a strong narrative arc, without a clear throughline of who Alice Guy was and what compelled her, creatively and personally, to succeed in this challenging new industry.

This book is recommended for larger graphic novel collections, particularly those that emphasize women’s history or media history. For those interested in learning about Guy’s remarkable life, it’s absolutely worth picking up, but general readers may not find it the most accessible entry point into her story.

Alice Guy: First Lady of Film
By José-Louis Bocquet
Art by Catel Muller
SelfMadeHero, 2022
ISBN: 9781914224034

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  French,  Character Representation: French,

Days of Sand

Days of Sand, written and illustrated by  Aimée de Jongh,  is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about a devastating time from US history. During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to chronicle the devastation of the Dust Bowl. This book follows John Clark, a fictional photographer, who moves from New York City to Oklahoma for a month. The story explores the complexity of capturing something so large in such a small medium. What kinds of truths can be captured in images that are cropped and often staged? What truths are left out when viewed through the perspective of still images?

De Jongh front loads with exposition including the causes of the Dust Bowl, the historical context of the Great Depression, and the economic and social consequences of the dust storms. The exposition is at times a bit forced, but not tedious, and helped to give context to the story.

While Clark is a fictional photographer, the job was real. The FSA hired photographers, such as Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, to travel throughout the United States to document the devastation and extreme poverty of those living through the Great Depression. In Days of Sand, the FSA office strongly suggests that Clark may find success in exposing truths through his images through some staging and manipulation. “It goes beyond the subject to reveal a deeper truth.” Clark arrives in the panhandle of Oklahoma and immediately begins to manufacture scenes to match a list of requested images. The people of the town are rightly hesitant to trust him. It isn’t until he is able to see the people of the town as humans rather than an assignment that he is able to truly understand their predicament and take photos with more truth and honesty. There were heartwarming moments and moments that made my heart drop.

This was a devastating time in US history, and much of what we know is in large part because of the work of these photographers. However, the act of taking photos is not free from bias. Photography (as with any art form) is unable to capture whole truths. Some photos meant to be documentary in nature are staged, but more so, the choices made by the photographer (where to crop, the angle, and the lighting) affect the message and meaning derived from the image.

De Jongh writes a detailed afterward with a well-articulated discussion of the work of the FSA photographers and the effect they had on public perceptions. In the end, the book makes the argument that these photographers may have done more harm than good. Staged photography casts doubt on authenticity, and many photographers acted more as spectators than members of the community. Can you have empathy or truly understand a community from the outside? Is art an effective way to share truths? De Jongh argues, “no,” despite using the comic art form to make said argument.

I think it is also important to note that there is a missed opportunity for a diverse perspective. Days of Sand is about a white male fictional photographer. In real life, the FSA hired many white men, but it also hired women, such as Dorthea Lange, and people of color, such as Gordon Parks. Marginalized perspectives are an important part of history, and a perspective from a woman or person of color would have added important layers to and depth to the realities of the day.

Days of Sand is far from perfect, however, the illustration style is beautiful and many of the images are exquisite. There are also a number of tender moments with human connection that do, in many ways, redeem the book. The book is illustrated in a mixture of highly detailed comic illustrations and realistic illustrated reproductions of real and fictional photography from the FSA photographers. The realism reflects the haunting nature of documenting such tragedies.

In the end, I found the book interesting and will include it in my high school graphic novel collection. There are other (arguably better written) comic descriptions of the Great Depression, but the story of the FSA photographers is an important and interesting story to tell. I found the book to be thought-provoking and will recommend it to teen and adult readers who like historical fiction and philosophical discussions about the nature of capturing truths.

Days of Sand 
By Aimée de Jongh
SelfMadeHero, 2022
ISBN: 9781914224041

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)