Filmmaker Courtney Stephens comes to Bertha DocHouse on Tuesday 18 August to present a live narration over her excavation of female travelogues from the 1920s to 50s, Terra Femme. Ahead of this event, we caught up with Stephens to learn more about her documentary performance and archival practice. Read on to find out more.
Was this initially conceived as a live documentary performance? If not, how has the process evolved from its initial iteration?
I first presented this material for a series on spectatorship, asking how we can think about these ‘home movies’ outside the home, also intersect with world historic events and even early ethnographic practices. At that time the format was more like a conversation with the audience with the films running as silent footage, where I presented quotations and thoughts.
During the pandemic, I pulled it into something that could play online, so it took more of an essayistic form. But I was happy to return to the live performance where, though it isn’t totally modular, it removes the authority of a disembodied voice and brings it back into the realm of ‘let’s look at this together.’
How did you go about sourcing the archive material and what drew you to these particular pieces and filmmakers?
It started by accident, because I was looking for material for another failed or ‘unfinished’ film about British women’s traveling writing in the 19th century, for which I spent a couple of years in India. I then spent another several years trying to complete this behemoth and never quite got there. I was seeking out amateur films shot in India around the time of Indian independence, and came across this body of work by a woman whose biography in the archive consisted only of her second husband’s name, and the fact that she had shot all these films between her two marriages.
I think I got kind of bewildered by this idea, kind of the opposite of the original film I’d been working on about women writing their way into history, of kind of failing to enter the historical record, except through your experiential images – your point of view. So this started a several-years process of collecting different women’s work. I was particularly drawn to those who didn’t try to professionalize in any way this past time, where it remained a truly amateur affair. So that it made the questions of how the material intersects with early documentary and non-fiction practices more curious and provocative.
You describe one filmmaker as having an ‘antimonumental sensibility’. I wonder how much of the concept of a ‘female gaze’ you attribute to these women being ‘amateur’ filmmakers? They find beauty in the ordinary, rather than ascribing to the expository, or the male cinematic tradition.
Hmm, good question. Early on in the film I set up this vexed phrase that has been especially circulating for the past ten years of such a thing as a ‘female gaze.’ It’s more something I hope carries a charge and question but not one that can ultimately be answered. About women’s looking, about women’s emergence into public space in the early 20th century, and yes, certainly the nature of professional vs. amateur filmmaking. Since women were by and large excluded from the former.
So some of the effect of the films – the way they might focus on a window display or a flowering tree rather than delivering a reel of historic buildings – is a factor of them being non-professional documents. There is no ostensible goal. But even so, an awful lot of travel material from that time is indeed filled with sights, vistas and monuments – almost like those early accordion postcard collections.
So what is leftover to that (because certainly women were subject to the visual machinery of tourism as well) becomes of interest. And all amateur filmmaking has this kind of idiosyncrasy as you point out. But since women didn’t have as many opportunities in other modes of ‘legitimate’ filmmaking, the aspects of personal vision that show up in these amateur films seems much more precious as a record of creative expression.
You reference Saidiya Hartman (an American scholar of African American literature and cultural history) in the film. As I was watching I couldn’t help but draw parallels between her and your work.
Where there are gaps in the archive, you ruminate on what have been, what the filmmakers might have been thinking. Does this practice inscribe the women into a type of counter-history?
Thanks, yes. Lose Your Mother was a book I thought about while editing the film, along the lines of what you’re saying here: that speculation can be a way of expanding a space of absence – particularly when the absence is not accidental, but follows from denied power.
But I might stop short of framing these films as counter-histories. It’s been useful to think of them as other, or secondary, but one of the complexities of this genre is how these women – who could afford cameras and film and make trips around the world – were themselves tied to the question of power. They are at best documents of mixed privilege, which was, for me, precisely what makes the project so challenging.