Interview: Courtney Stephens
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Terra Femme (Courtney Stephens, 2012-2021)
In a 2013 essay for The American Reader, Vanessa Veselka reflects on the dangers she faced as a teenage hitchhiker and links them to the lack of female road narratives: “Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change. You can go on a quest to save your father, dress like a man and get discovered upon injury, get martyred and raped, but God forbid you go out the door just to see what’s out there.” Veselka is quoted in Courtney Stephens’s found-footage film Terra Femme, which played last week at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam following presentations earlier this year at both the Open City Documentary Film Festival and MoMA’s Doc Fortnight.
Terra Femme consists entirely of travelogue footage dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, all shot by women. The material is defined by its itinerant freedom: the women behind the camera are most often alone but they are never in danger, and they are all—with the sole exception of the Ford Motors–sponsored adventuress Aloha Wanderwell—amateurs and hobbyists viewing their surroundings for the first time through the camera’s lens, without artistic pretense or material motive. Stephens edits the films into a trance-like collage, pairing the images with writings by Saidiya Hartman and poet and artist Madeline Gins, and an original score by minimalist composer Sarah Davachi. Her focus is not on the exotic locales but on the wanderlust and sense of mobility that drove these women to leave home just to see—and record—what’s out there.
In the spirit of pre-sound era travelogues or “scenics,” which were typically presented in a roadshow format with live music and narration, Stephens performs a voiceover in person at each screening. As her montage of archival footage unfolds, she details a solo research trip that she took after a startling medical diagnosis, and weaves her own narrative into those of the women whose footage she has repurposed.
Following a performance of an early iteration of the project at the Open City Documentary Film Festival, I spoke with Stephens about the politics of correcting the archival record, the history of the travelogue genre, and the beautiful subjectivity of the amateur archival footage seen in her film.
Travelogue films of the 1910s and ’20s, which were largely made by male hobbyists and amateurs, were primarily valued as educational material. What is so striking about some of the films you’ve used—like those by Carry Wagner and Mrs. J. Shipley Dixon—is that they are almost entirely lacking in expository or didactic information. What drew you to this footage?
What originally drew me to these films was actually something to do with information. I was looking for b-roll footage shot in India around the time of it’s independence for a project related to British colonialism. I came across a reel in the Penn Museum’s film archive shot in 1940 by Mrs. J. Shipley Dixon, about whom the archive had almost no information. I found the work idiosyncratic and became interested in other women who were using the medium in this somewhat out-of-bounds way at the time.
These women weren’t documentarians or trained ethnographers, but it wouldn’t make sense to call these “home movies.” I once presented the films to a group of geographers at the Royal Geographical Society who were interested precisely in the material histories the movies capture—the fashions, the boats, the souvenirs sold at ports. But there are also, as you say, these more interior sequences scattered throughout the works.
That has to do in part with the films’ intended audience, which seems to have been no one in particular. A few of the women did exhibit their work semi-publicly. Adelaide Pearson, for example, was known to hold public screenings in her small coastal town in Maine, during which she narrated her projected footage to local boat workers and fishermen. She wrote that she wanted to share the beauty of the world with those who didn’t have a chance to travel.
At least one other filmmaker belonged to amateur “cine-clubs” where she and her husband shared their work. But for the most part, this filmmaking is more in the vein of scrapbooking; the impulse to film seems more connected to the question of what is worth saving rather than what is worth communicating. The mode is one of private fixation, and therefore the films, while full of public spaces, still feel quite intimate.
I appreciate that the film eschews labeling these women as “firsts”—I’ve seen programs in which Adelaide Pearson, for example, is presented as a “trailblazer” in film, but that’s not what you are doing here. Would these women even consider themselves to be filmmakers?
I’ve been discussing this subject with Shilyh Warren, author of Subject to Reality: Women and Documentary Film. We’ve talked about the appeal of trying to counter erasure in the historical record by inserting these missing women into various canons. But it’s a little complicated. First, by trying to interpret these films through the lens of well-worn categories, you risk warping what was actually special and specific about them. It seems almost violent to judge their worth by the standards of the professional worlds they were excluded from.
But to your question: no, I don’t think these were aspirational works knocking at the door of the documentary world. I imagine filmmaking must have been very important to them since it was too cumbersome and expensive a hobby to take on casually at the time, but I don’t imagine they saw what they were doing as being in dialogue with a particular filmtradition.
However, that doesn’t answer the question of whether they were, indeed, doing some form of what we would now recognize as nonfiction filmmaking—perhaps one that has more in common with later experimental work than the documentary films of their day. There was quite a bit of fiction and reconstruction in the nonfiction films of that time. Amateur films let it all hang out, including unflattering and politically revealing interactions. In that sense, these films are very much subjective nonfiction, because those moments destroy any pretense of neutrality. Personally, I feel that rather than squeeze these women into the history of documentary, it’s important to wrest that genre away from the idea that it should be delivering objective facts and information.
Armeta Hearst and her husband—a Black couple in Seattle in the ’50s—obviously differ greatly from the other more privileged travelers. How did they come to be a part of the film?
I think with the Armeta Hearst footage, I wanted to reconsider how I defined travel as a genre, partly because I was working on this project during the pandemic and experiencing so strongly the meaning of movement, of emancipatory gestures—even while just driving across Los Angeles. I wanted to reorient the definition of travel towards stakes and significance instead of, say, how far someone went from home. For a Black couple in the midst of segregation, a road trip across America carries great significance, and I wanted to push the boundaries of the project beyond the well-heeled women we expect to see in such contexts. It also touches on the question of how we achieve more equity in the archive where there is a real underrepresentation of certain groups. I think it takes serious reflection on what one is searching for. I realized I wasn’t looking for more footage of vacations to the Egyptian pyramids; I was looking for records of mobility.
There’s a section in which you linger on Dixon filming a succulent at home in Philadelphia. You say in the narration, “Archivists always complain about how much film is wasted on flowers, something you’re almost certain to see again.” Could you expand on this section and its relation to travel?
Oh, I love that sequence, too. Dixon tended to document plants—from gnarled trees in the Garden of Gethsemane to the flowers of Madeira to the arboretums of her native Philadelphia. It’s a consistent trope across her films. In one reel, which I believe was actually shot at home, she films a cereus flower over the course of the single night in which it blooms. In theory, she stayed up all night to capture this brief and beautiful life cycle. I find it lovely that she thought this was deserving of documentation. But the reason I included it is because I also think it says something about sensibility, and maybe submission. These films are quite yielding. They lack agenda. They adapt and inquire from the peripheries of the world, responding to its different time signatures. Rather than imposing order, they open up space. It is a different kind of directing.
There are imperialist overtones in all travelogue footage. You address this explicitly when you say, “You go looking for documents of female freedom, but find only other instances of domination.” How were you able to balance these moments of critique with simply letting the footage speak for itself?
I’ve found that to be a challenge, but I also think the strength of this material is how ontologically uncertain it is. Westerners traveling in the early 20th century often did so along circuits of colonial rule. Not just geographically, but also philosophically. The whole tourism apparatus operated on the same belief systems that justified imperial rule: the idea that these places were antique, and in need of modernization. This is what tourists came to see, and these are the images they tended to bring home. Our lady filmmakers are no exception. Plus, many of these women had, through family or marriage, directly benefited from channels of power and capital. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, travelogues by British women visiting the colonies was a bonafide literary genre. This is early and exciting in the history of women’s writing, but their latitude was at the expense of enormous numbers of oppressed people, many of them women, many of them women of color.
I’ve tried to give some context but also to let the images and encounters speak for themselves, presenting both what is beautiful in the works and their limitations. I don’t know that they are deserving of outright reverence or condemnation, but I do think they’re deserving of consideration, and that they speak to other complex intersections. That’s precisely what makes them valuable: there is so much difference displayed even among this group. To paraphrase what I offer in the film: the idea is not that this small and privileged cross-section of women tells us how women see the world. It’s that the films demonstrate that there really cannot be an unattached gaze. And isn’t this what connects film to travel? That both are mediums of hidden meaning?
Mackenzie Lukenbill is an audiovisual archivist and editor and a Digital Archive Assistant at Film Comment.