There is nothing more satisfying to me than being surprised. I consider myself a proper cinephile so when I see a film about cinema that I know practically nothing about, it makes me happy. If the film is illuminating and interesting as well, that is close to the perfect evening at the cinema for me. If the documentary happens to be about film then I am in hog heaven! For my first trip to the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival this year I chose Paul Duane’s (Barbaric Genius) and David Cairns’ Natan and I was not disappointed.
Natan tells the remarkable story of Bernard Natan, a Romanian immigrant who came to Paris in 1905 and became involved almost immediately with French cinema. After fighting for France in World War I he received French citizenship. He immediately got back into producing films which eventually led to him taking control of the Pathé film group in the late 1920s. Under his leadership Pathé went on to produce epic films such as Les Miserables. But Bernard Natan has become largely written out of French film history for various different reasons. I will not go into details here as the story is an excellent one, suffice to say that his ethnicity and subsequent rumours plagued Natan almost from the start of his career. His ‘comeuppance’ for his alleged transgressions is at the heart of this devastating documentary.
Duane and Cairns tell the story using the traditional talking heads method but they also employ a terrific ‘ghost’ voiceover technique which lends the film an eerie feel. This ‘character’ speaks for Natan, and adds a layer to the visual images on show. It works wonderfully. This is one of those stories you cannot believe you didn’t know about already. What takes it beyond merely entertaining to very important is the fact that the film is making an ambitious attempt to reclaim a place in film history for a pioneer who was shockingly treated. This is important and the main reason I hope Natan will get a wider release. Somebody suggested during the Q & A that this would make a terrific feature film and I would have to agree. But see the documentary first and be astonished at this fascinating piece of work.