How many female film directors can you name? Four? Six? It’s an area of artistic accomplishment that remains overwhelmingly male, despite Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar award for best director, the first for a woman. (Only three have been nominated.) Such sorry conditions make this retrospective of Alice Guy Blaché all the more revelatory. Cinema’s first woman director, Blaché not only pioneered many techniques in Paris at the turn of the last century, she also co-established a film company, Solax, in New York in 1910. This singular auteur wrote, directed or produced over 1,000 movies, mostly silent, which ranged from comedies to westerns, fables to dramas. A decade ago, only 40 of her films were known to exist, but through the worldwide efforts of archivists and preservationists, 130 have now been salvaged. This screening series thus represented the eye-opening resurrection of a little known but pivotal figure in the development of early filmmaking.

Blaché began as a secretary to Léon Gaumont in 1894, closely observing his firm’s manufacture of optical equipment and still cameras, and was present at the Lumière Brothers’ first screening of a moving picture in 1895. Ironically, it was apparently her gender that enabled her jump into directing. As the story goes, in 1896 she asked Gaumont, who would open his own motion picture production company the next year, if she might use some of his equipment to film a story about fairies. Believing her request was just “a young girl’s thing,” he was happy to comply. Blaché later noted that if Gaumont had realized the power and potential that narrative film would soon develop, he likely wouldn’t have allowed her access.

Blaché’s first film sparked a flood of ideas. Most of her movies were very short, as was the norm, though La Vie du Christ (1906), a big-budget film featuring hundreds of extras and lavish sets, runs a then-substantial 34 minutes. While her work’s narratives mostly hewed to the conventions of early cinema—domestic follies, stereotypical villains and victims, and relatively unsubtle symbolism—a few aspects distinguish her oeuvre, such as a concern for social slights against immigrants and the poor. A Fool and His Money (1912) is the earliest known film to feature an all African-American cast, while strong female leads figure often—in Madame a des envies (Madame has Cravings), 1906, a very pregnant woman is pursued around town by her husband as she steals food and drink from strangers to satisfy her hunger. Additionally, Blaché explored uncharted formal territory, for instance through the use of color-tinted scenes and double exposures. This presentation of dozens of films, organized by Whitney curator-at-large (and A.i.A. contributing editor) Joan Simon, introduces a new century of viewers to Blaché—a woman who broke ground in her work and placed art at the center of her life.

Photo: Alice Guy Blaché: A House Divided, 1913, film, 13 minutes; at the Whitney.