A film by Courtney Stephens. 62 minutes, USA, (2021).
Terra Femme is an essay film comprised of amateur travelogues filmed by women in the 1920s-1950s. With a score by Sarah Davachi, the film moves between geographical essay, personal inquiry, and historical speculation, examining these films as both private documents and accidental ethnographies. The films present a new type of traveller: no longer a male seeker of conquests, she might be a divorcee on a tour of biblical gardens, or a widow on a cruise to the North Pole. Representing the world through women’s eyes, the films raise questions about female representation in the archive and the role of amateur movie-making plays in understanding the participation of women in early non-fiction filmmaking.
One thing these films encode is a profound absence: the general absence of women in the film archive and the larger absence of female figures in the historical record. They also explore the attempt to concretize one’s own experience through the act of making cinema, while also acknowledging the other forms of power that gave these women access to film cameras in the first place. At once a film about longing for past worlds through cinematic excavation, this force flows in both directions: as women from the past convey themselves into the present through the power of their gaze.
Courtney Stephens is a writer/director of non-fiction and experimental films. The American Sector, her documentary (co-directed with Pacho Velez) about fragments of the Berlin Wall transplanted to the U.S., was named one of the best films of 2021 in The New Yorker. Her essay film, Terra Femme, comprised of amateur travel footage shot by women in the early 20th century, premiered at MoMA and has toured widely as a live performance. Her work has been exhibited at The National Gallery of Art, The Barbican, Walker Art Center, The Royal Geographical Society, BAMPFA, Garage Museum, and in film festivals including the Berlinale, Hong Kong International Film Festival, South by Southwest, and the New York Film Festival. Stephens is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship to India.