To Describe The World: A Conversation With Courtney Stephens About ‘Terra Femme’

3 Jun, 23

Courtney Stephens’s performance lecture Terra Femme ranges from the North Pole to the South Seas, and over everywhere in between. Our constant companion, a voice-over that is sometimes personal and inquisitive and at other times reflexive and conceptual, reveals that the footage we are seeing was shot by about a dozen American and British women between the Thirties and Sixties. One of these women, Carry Wagner, a New-York based Jewish suffragette, spoke of feeling unequipped, of having “no tongue, no adequate language to describe the world.” And yet, somehow, she managed to record an international array of what Stephens calls the “minor spaces” of women’s lives, “which exist outside the flow of historic time.” Stephens’s films dwell in these minor spaces. They are hard to categorise, weaving fact and fiction, the experimental and the evidentiary, and the personal and the political as they undertake the complex and necessary task of creating a feminist geography.

Stephens’s shorts fray the seams of seemingly intact borders in their explorations of gender, mobility, perception, and history. They unfold as a series of feminist inquiries reaching into the far corners of a world structured by histories of violence and, especially, the legacies of patriarchy and colonialism. Ida Western Exile, for example, opens with archival footage of Georgia O’Keefe, who appears as a speck of human in the vast Southwestern landscape, “my country”, as she calls it in the audio. O’Keefe’s steely, assertive voice is set against the voice of a contemporary woman as she talks on the phone, anxious, scared, and overwhelmed, her words hinting at an imminent apocalypse, seeking advice from movers, poison control, and salespeople about how to travel, live, and maybe die. Mixed Signals similarly plays off juxtaposition, this time moving between archival footage of a paternalistic doctor conducting a physical exam on a female patient – both are white – and footage from one or many hulking ships. Images of the feminised vessel, her ropes, her hull, her staircases and anchors, flow through the film. A tenuous relationship is created between the medical and corporate bodies under examination, punctuated by images of brain scans, an authorial signature that progressively takes on meaning in Stephens’s oeuvre, and especially in Terra Femme. And all the while the examination of the female patient appears and disappears. “Can you feel this?” asks the doctor. “Yes, yes, yes…” the woman replies, submitting, feeling and responding in the affirmative. What choice does she have? In Labial Quintet, Stephens reads aloud emails she wrote to an aesthetician named Lisa. Could Lisa say more about her theory of the five types of vulvas? As she waits for Lisa’s response, which never comes, Stephens conducts her own investigations, ending up, in her words peering, “into many weird corners of the internet: clitoral vacuums?”, Second Life water births, and labiaplasty. Here, too, images converge from distant reaches of the media landscape: an educational documentary about the quality of canned beets collides with mainstream internet pornography, Ernie from Sesame Street, and footage from a waxing appointment.

Unexpected archival footage, editing that foregrounds paradox and contradiction, and a personalised, conceptual voice-over are also hallmarks of Terra Femme, a meditation that draws from the formal traditions of the travelogue and the essay film, but re-visions them both. For several years, Stephens presented Terra Femme as a “live documentary,” a term for what in another epoch might have been called an illustrated lecture. Restricted by the global pandemic in the fall of 2020, Stephens began editing the material into an hour-long archival film essay with music by Sarah Davachi, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight festival in March of 2021.

The pandemic has reconfigured the relationship between home and away for many of us, especially those of us habituated to the (environmentally costly) privilege of global travel. A century ago mobility across the continents, however, was exceedingly rare, and especially for women. In the late 19th century, image-based travelogues became popular among armchair travellers eager for visions of a world beyond their own. Entrepreneurial photographers and moving-image innovators returning from voyages abroad would often assemble audiences around glimpses of exotic, faraway lands (typically projected slides or amateur films) and recount their journeys over the images. The ability to travel, technological skills and financial support, however, were definitively the purview of men of means.

As Stephens recounts in Terra Femme, home-use film equipment became available in 1923, a shift that had major implications for the possibility of what we would today call women’s filmmaking. By the Thirties, serious, and mostly wealthy, amateurs were sharing their travel films in cinema clubs and vaudeville theatres, often with live narration, a format Stephens emulates when performing Terra Femme. Marketing for home movie cameras also targeted women directly. Women were encouraged to document their domestic life and safeguard memories for their families. At the same time, however, travel became more accessible to the upper and middle classes. Terra Femme showcases how home movie equipment provided women with an opportunity to not only safeguard the history of the family, but also that of the public sphere, the globe and implicitly, the self. In Stephens’s careful hands, the footage shot by these women becomes a prism for noticing other worlds. Worlds accessible through privilege, wealth or relationships to empire, as well as worlds sealed off momentarily from the male gaze and from colonial patriarchy. Terra Femme is about the labor and love involved in creating and collecting images, both expanding the boundaries of women’s cinema to include the fragment and the lost reel and modelling a mode of reading that analyses the rush of world-making and hints of self-inscription at stake in women’s filmmaking.

Terra Femme is Stephens’s magnum opus. It is also a meditation on the unresolved matter of women’s relationship to earthly places. What kind of home is earth, family, society? Where does the body go to live and to die? What does it mean to move through the world with this particular body, raced and gendered, disabled and vulnerable? And perhaps most pressing of all, as Stephens asks in a recent interview: who gets to describe the world? The following exchange about Terra Femme, developed from a series of questions posed to Stephens by film scholars Shilyh Warren and Pooja Rangan, orbits this question. Our conversation strays from but persistently returns to another question foregrounded by Terra Femme: how do we interpret those descriptions?

Pooja Rangan: Terra Femme begins with a scene of colonial exploitation, told in voiceover: mid-19th century clairvoyants – illiterate women enlisted by the British Royal Navy to help locate a ship of (presumably male) explorers lost in the Canadian arctic in 1845 – act and even “write” out their telepathic visions. Women enter the film as virtual travellers and recorders of remote experiences that are not their own. The rest of  Terra Femme unfolds nearly a century later. By this time, a number of American and Western European women are filming their domestic and international travels on portable cameras. Some are travelling for self-funded leisure, and others (not unlike the clairvoyants) have been recruited in imperial or socialist agendas of exploration, documentation, or ethnography. Most, but not all, of these women are white and bourgeois. Some are married, some are divorced, at least one is a closeted lesbian. Some are housewives, one or two are professionals, others are hobbyists. Their films have somehow made it into archives, and in her probing, reflective engagements with them, Courtney ponders the question of whether these films evince something like a “female gaze.” Shilyh, this is a concept you have done a fair amount of thinking about, so perhaps I could begin by asking you both to say a bit more about the female gaze?

Shilyh Warren: Yes, Courtney brings in this concept of the “female gaze” early on, noting that her Google alert on the phrase (I’ve made one, too, now!) reveals a striking inconsistency about what it actually means. The articles flagged “female gaze” range from chic urban developments to Demi Moore’s new narrative audio series, “Dirty Diana”, about a woman who works as a financial advisor by day and records women’s sexual fantasies for her podcast, “Have a Good Wood”, by night.  In some ways, Terra Femme provides a response to the question of how one might define, read, and make sense of the concept of the female gaze, particularly when it refers concretely to women’s technical, epistemological and intellectual work behind the camera.
Feminist film theory was initially erected around the concept of the male gaze, which we attribute to Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic exposé of the way that formal and narrative structures of classical Hollywood cinema control and manage the image of woman in the service of the desires and fears of the male heterosexual subject. Men look; women are “to be looked at”. Men are active subjects, women passive objects of visual and narrative pleasure. For Mulvey, the answer was to liberate the gaze, destroy pleasure, and develop a feminist avant-garde counter-cinema. She said nothing about a female gaze. Yet others have long wondered if a female aesthetic exists (or should exist), and if it does, how might we recognise it? What kind of feminist politics might a female gaze envision? Embody? Inspire? Foreclose? Perpetuate?  Courtney, do you think you’ve settled on how and why the concept of the female gaze is useful for these particular archives? For women’s cinema in general? For feminist politics?

Courtney Stephens: I do find it useful as a concept, but basically as something to unravel. Observing how something falls apart can reveal so much about how it was constructed in the first place, and the “female gaze” is one of those things that has a lot of layers of paint, so to speak. In the case of these film travelogues, my main interest is something like: “How did these particular women navigate and represent the world?” But I quickly found that this was tied up with other questions for me, like “Are there ways that women tend to make meaning that have some bearing on how they represent the world?” or “Who’s female? What holds the category together?” It isn’t that these questions are answerable, either, but I think they’re good questions because they’re unanswerable. Answering them would be to throw them away.
My first encounter with the phrase “female gaze” was in the context of early women’s travel writing. I became interested in travelogues through the Romantic poets, and a book I read many years ago called Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel-Writing, 1770-1840: From an Antique Land, by Nigel Leask. The book is about the Romantic period’s preoccupation with ruins, especially ruins in the so-called antique lands, Egypt, India, and Mexico, and then how this fixation was tied to empire. I got interested in how the passage of time itself gets aestheticised – which seems related to filmmaking – and whether this is a redeemable impulse. I guess what I’m talking about here is melancholy, and the special kind of melancholy that is related to female erasure. By this I mean how we acknowledge and react to the scarcity of women in the historical record, an inheritance which is an absence. Women’s travel writing from the 18th and 19th century describes peering from the outside into the nearly all-male domains of seafaring, trade, and foreign industry. There is the feeling that they are encountering alien worlds. There is also plenty of sharp political critique. It was these accounts that eventually led me to do a Fulbright in India.
What is so interesting about these early female travellers is the mixed vantage point they present. These women who were in a position to write and travel had enormous privilege, however they still faced many constraints on their mobility and lacked political agency. They were second class citizens in their own countries, yet abroad, they were British subjects traveling through conquered lands. Their positions were complicated. The films I explore in Terra Femme come from a later era of course, but they are similar in that they represent both high status and low status filmmaking. And because they are silent we must rely entirely on their literal gaze – what they chose to shoot and how they shot it – to suggest how they, in another sense, saw things.

Shilyh: Courtney, you and I talked about what it means to recuperate women filmmakers from neglect or erasure. In your case, this is through bringing them out of the archive, selecting excerpts, and editing them together into something new. In the case of my world in feminist film history and theory, scholars reactivate interest in unknown or little known women filmmakers through writing and research. Feminist thinkers know that the act of recuperation has the potential to create new ways of understanding the past and the future. In the case of hobbyists or amateur filmmakers, Terra Femme makes us realise that in order to productively engage the work of neglected women filmmakers, we first have to redefine what we mean by “filmmaker”.
In my work, I’ve tried to revise the history of documentary filmmaking by including a range of women filmmakers who have received little or no attention as filmmakers: Osa Johnson, Frances Flaherty, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead. And yet watching Terra Femme made me realise that I still held a notion of “filmmaker” modelled after the male canon. A filmmaker was someone who considered herself a professional producer of images, because they were either for sale or for research, never only for personal or private records.
This framing may have been a productive way to begin to challenge the phallocentric histories of documentary filmmaking. However, it also completely ignores the many fascinating women that you resuscitate in Terra Femme, and so continues a legacy of making (some) women’s work invisible. As you reveal, so many women – even the most privileged – wouldn’t have dared call themselves filmmakers.

Courtney: Right, these were works driven by private rather than public ambition, for the most part. And it’s precisely because of this that they raise some interesting questions when thinking about early non-fiction by women. When I first encountered the films, I related to them as home movies and saw them in that tradition, just that they were shot “away” rather than at home. But I no longer think that’s a satisfactory way of looking at them. The films cross into other realms: ethnography, nature filmmaking, and many do have forms of narration, like intertitles and maps, putting them more into the realm of documentary. But what is vital about them is tied up with their amateurism. These women made documents of the world and in doing so documented their own positionality, which was – even if they had the means to afford filmmaking equipment – still that of an outsider. The films assert a right to public space as an outsider. They assert that “this experience remains important.” And they eschew professionalism in part because they may have been excluded from it, but in part perhaps because they were their own audience, and that, in context, seems like a powerful provocation. As women were on the whole excluded from legitimised forms of documentary, the standards of those forms can’t be the yardstick by which we measure these women’s contribution.
A strange irony is that these films are in some ways more “non-fiction” than the semi-constructed documentaries of that time, which were full of recreations and carefully composed shots, that all the while insisted on their objectivity. In amateur films, there’s typically no cutting room floor, so every scrap of film is there and the world bleeds in: people look into the lens, or reject the gaze by covering themselves, or ask for money.  Other people are exhibitionstic, or curious. The point is that we experience actual human encounters in these films. And this destroys any illusion of neutrality, because we’re made so aware of the particular person filming and what they represented in that encounter; their wealth, for example.  In one reel we see Egyptian boys diving for coins tossed by tourists from the boat on which the filmmaker herself is shooting as it sails down the Nile. Later we see hawkers selling carpets and souvenirs next to the great antiquities. These moments totally disrupt the flow of voyeurism. The films reveal the realpolitik of the time, rather than the romanticised gaze of many so-called documentaries, and as such paint a valuable portrait of place in time precisely on account of their amateurism.

Shilyh: One of the gifts of the film then is the way it changes the terms of engagement: to include women is to destabilise the notion of director/filmmaker/auteur (something feminist film theory has long been committed to).

Courtney: Right. These documents offer something different than commercial or even educational filmmaking. I think the question to ask of them is whether we can discover what these women creatively discovered. If we see what they were up to, creatively, through the prism of building private geographies, what of that knowledge is transferable? The resuscitation of forms like handcrafts by second-wave feminists was never only about resurrecting ignored artists or making illegitimate forms legitimate, but about challenging how and what we value in art. There is a great article called “Femmage,” published in the feminist journal Heresies in the late 70s by Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer, which begins:
Virginia Woolf talks about the loose, drifting material of life, describing how she would like to see it sorted and coalesced into a mold transparent enough to reflect the light of our life and yet aloof as a work of art. She makes us think of the paper lace, quills, beads, scraps of cloth, photographs, birthday cards, valentines and clippings, all of which inspired the visual imaginations of the women we write about.
They go on to lift up various overlooked mediums of female artistry – sewing, scrapbooking, decoupage – and in doing so they defend minor elements: digressions, accumulations. It isn’t merely aesthetic. It’s an orientation towards the overlooked, and it’s also an orientation against the idea that non-fiction is somehow less creative than fiction simply because it collaborates with the ready-made world. Sifting through what already exists, preparing it, tending it, culling it, is an application of sensibility that has been part of the labor of women across eons. We should value it as we value pure invention (a tired concept). For women in earlier times, asked to keep their voices down, collusion with the world as it is was a way to flourish.

Shilyh: As you say in the film: “The world is the medium through which the self is revealed.”

Courtney: Yes! I like this idea that these women are using the inherited world as a medium for self-portraiture, right in the moment that American women especially were entering public space in more substantial ways, through work, education, and tourism. The filmmakers are working out their interiority through how and where they cast their attention, not through changing or imposing their will on that world. This reminds me of a chapter from Jamieson Webster’s book Conversion Disorder which had some impact on my thinking while I was editing the film. She writes about a female patient of Lacan who describes the erotic sensations she’s been having related to certain objects or visual displays, which she experiences while looking at them. But what is interesting is that she reports that the eroticism comes in part from knowing she will later report these sensations to him, her analyst, and that he will interpret them and their meaning. I love this. It calls attention to the part of gazing – and maybe this is somehow gendered? – that is about having the gaze observed, privately and through a lens of hidden meaning.  In the case of amateur filmmaking, maybe the camera is the analyst?

Pooja: You have both articulated so well how this feminist project urges us to rethink concepts such as ‘filmmaker’ and ‘documentary.’ Terra Femme’s opening scene casts both of these questions in a decolonial light. Courtney’s narration intermittently makes us aware of the matrices of patriarchy, racial capitalism, and settler-colonialism – aware, that is, of the structures that afford particular women under particular circumstances the capacity to look at the world in desiring ways, and which also shape and mould how these women move through the world, whom and what they look at, and how. As Courtney puts it at one point, “you go looking for documents of female freedom and find other forms of domination.”

Shilyh: This raises a familiar problem in feminist recuperation: many of these privileged women bolstered oppressive discourse and structures, or at least benefited from them, and in the case of Terra Femme, especially colonialism. How does one face this work ethically and what does its continued exhibition bring to light?

Pooja: I am wondering how we might reconceive of the recuperative project of Courtney’s film if we approach it not only as a feminist project but as a decolonial one. As a project, that is, which confronts the traces of these women’s lives – obscured as they may still be by what Shilyh terms the “phallocentrism” of film theory, film history, and the conceptual frameworks they afford – as archival “presences” that also bury, push aside, or vanish the experiences of indigenous, enslaved, and colonised people.
As a possible point of entry, I’d love to hear Courtney say something about her inclusion of Armeta Hearst’s footage of Black life in Seattle circa 1950, and of footage shot by an unnamed African American couple during a trip to Moscow, a trip which Courtney speculates may have been part of a Soviet internationalist project repudiating American racism. The scenes we see inside Black homes are poignant reminders that possessing private space (as opposed to public space) had, and continues to have, very different stakes for Black middle-class women and their white counterparts. This feels like a very deliberate act of punctuation, and a reminder that gender, by itself, is an inadequate category of analysis.

Courtney: The project shifted a lot as a direct result of the pandemic, which led me to reach more deeply into the archives and also reconsider the idea of travel itself.  During the years I presented this material in person I more or less accepted that the very few women whose films exist in this sphere were among the highly privileged and white. It was, as I saw it, a historical fact. Reworking the material during the lockdown in Los Angeles, into something that could be presented online, I was sensitive to different things – especially the idea of risk and public space. This was something I had conceived of as a gendered issue: the choice to forge into an unknown space alone is not seen as a heroic choice when a woman makes it, it’s seen as foolish. In 2020, the risks lurking outside had expanded: smoke, illness, political hostility. Simple excursions like going to the beach suddenly became so important, emancipatory. I’d by default defined a “travelogue” through the lens of distance: a trip to visit the pyramids was travel, a record of it a travelogue, while images shot on a camping trip were mere vacation footage. But this spoke nothing to the stakes of travel for the individuals making the films, and they also reinforced biases which I had long ago decided were being imposed by the archive itself.
I started looking at women’s home movie collections that didn’t purport to hold “travelogue” material. Armeta Hearst’s films, for example, devote most of their attention to her own Seattle neighbourhood; people dressed up for church, backyard gatherings, a civil rights protest. But there was also a lot of footage shot from trains and at train stations. Then I learned that her husband had been a Pullman porter. The Pullman Company began hiring Black men to work as porters on train cars following emancipation, and were involved in the formation of a Black middle class as well as the Great Migration of Black families out of the South. I appreciated this link of physical mobility to other kinds of historical and economic mobility, to emancipatory acts of a different order. In Ms. Hearst’s films, the couple travel across the Northern states during segregation, silently suggesting that, as you say, gender was not the only form of vulnerable embodiment.
I also started pursuing travel material whose makers’ genders are unknown. The African American Home Movie Archive holds a collection of orphaned footage, including a reel that documents four people – two men and two women – travelling around the country and staying at hotels, attending square-dance competitions (I think?) as well as a one long dark night on a greyhound bus. Another film had some intriguing footage you mention, of a Black couple touring Moscow, led by men in trench coats, which is notable because Russia was an uncommon destination for Americans in the early 1960s. In the voiceover I mention how the USSR courted Black American musicians and others to visit the Soviet Union as part of an optics campaign. Of course this is pure speculation, but I wanted to emphasise vectors other than self-determination at play in the movements of women.
There’s this almost tautological problem in that female travel has historically been tied to the mobility of men, so the category has all these other arteries of power weaving through it. Women tended to be the beneficiaries of wealth rather than the creators of wealth, and in a sense this points to the inadequacy of the category (of gender alone) in that it replicates other structures of racial and class oppression. Challenging some of those parameters was a way of trying to move beyond the underperformance of the historical record, rather than only supplying documents of privilege and calling them trailblazing. Half-erased objects have something equally important to say about the matters at hand.

Pooja: Illness is also an important bookend of Terra Femme. Early in the film Courtney discloses something she says she did not to many people at the time. Her own travel to India – which brought her into contact with the “picturesque” films shot by British and American travellers and expatriates in locales like Varanasi, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mysore – was spurred by a diagnosis that revealed lesions in her brain (a condition that we learn, toward the end of film, has not progressed) that led her to quit a job in the film industry.
I read this decision to acknowledge illness – an experience that often remains invisible or stigmatised – as part of the recuperative project of the film. Another word for recuperation is convalescence. Courtney’s acknowledgement of convalescence has historical significance too. Susan Sontag reminds us that convalescence, or travel undertaken with illness as the pretext, was a Romantic invention. She writes: “The Romantics invented invalidism as a pretext for leisure, and for dismissing bourgeois obligations in order to live only for one’s art. It was a way of retiring from the world without having to take responsibility for the decision” (Illness as Metaphor, 33-4). Convalescence and invalidism played as important a part in the aestheticization of particular destinations as landscapes (the Alpine mountains, the Mediterranean and South Pacific islands) as did the picturesque, a category developed in the late 18thcentury to describe an agreeable or attractive way of framing a picture. To this day – as Sontag notes – “a trip” remains the most common metaphor for physical, cognitive, or cultural disorientation, whether by travel, by drugs, or by illness.
I’d love to hear Courtney meditate on her trip – in both the metaphoric and literal senses of the word – through the archives, and through the lives of these women traveloguers. Please feel free to respond or redirect in any direction that feels comfortable to you: personal, structural, historical, aesthetic…

Courtney:  I appreciate the question. Working on this material definitely changed me. From the outset I was really looking for something personal in it, but I didn’t know what that was exactly. I spent years reading and thinking about these ideas around geography, women, empire, anonymity. The subject matter is so dense and deep, niche but also broad. Throughout this period, I was myself in perpetual transit, bouncing between teaching jobs in different cities and overseas work. I finished other projects during this time, but kept tinkering with Terra Femme, only performing it live in order to keep it in that provisional form. I couldn’t find a form for the film and maybe I couldn’t find a comfortable form for my own existence. At some point, I saw that the source of the desire to keep the project provisional wasn’t a problem with the project but the very meaning of it.
I think what touches me about the material has to do with physical destiny, which gets at your question, Pooja, about convalescence – that travel can be a protest or avoidance of imposed limitations. My MS diagnosis came with a feeling that the world was contracting around me, and movement felt like expansion. The films are imbued with the question of how fate is tied to physical form. Here are these women making the effort to document their own lives and impressions, unprompted, absent of context.  I think it really was an act of optimism to assign that kind of value to the experienced moment, to interior life, and something that goes very much against the grain of what women were traditionally taught to value themselves for, which was their physical life. The travel film uses physical motion to give life to the mind: the perceived self vs. the perceiving self, surface vs. interior, subject vs. object – always these tensions.
To your question about trips and tripping, this project has definitely been a long and strange one! I encountered these films while looking for b-roll for my own project, but as I started working with them, I found that this “b-roll” was able to convey what I hoped to say better than I could say it myself. Working inside other filmmakers’ material allowed me the space to detach from the circumstances of my own life, and reappear in the private space of another’s, and isn’t that what the fantasy of travel is all about? Ultimately I abandoned my initial project and embraced that kind of displacement as a formal strategy.  Looking for oneself through the act of creating space for others is one thing I try to represent in this film. Leaning in to working in negative space, finding self-worth in the gesture of assigning value – these were all part of that process, and it took time.

originally published by Another Gaze on July 19, 2021
Republished with the permission of the copyright holders. Thanks to Another Gaze, Courtney Stephans, Pooja Rangan and Shilyh Warren for granting permission.