Filmmaker Courtney Stephens visits Mills Folly Microcinema with a live-narrated “feminist retrieval” on April 12.
Courtney Stephens’ new documentary-performance Terra Femme (2021) seeks out the female gaze in films and literature about travel. Following a troubling diagnosis several years ago, Stephens left an industry job to focus on her own projects, which led to several years’ worth of archival exploration of early travel films by or featuring women. Stephens outlines these adventures in voiceover (live at this Mills Folly Microcinema event), with the archive-digging itself as a kind of travel as she globe-hops to flesh out the lives of the sometimes-anonymous camera operators.
The footage runs the gamut of the banal to the beautiful. Landscapes from vastly different parts of the world alternate with more casual verité shots of people coming and going, walking and talking. Stephens’ reflections are wide-ranging, as she considers the micro-narratives as well as what they may tell us about women’s filmmaking as a whole. She notes the demystifying experience of looking at all of this material back to back, seeing so many valuable pieces of personal history from a vantage point that most often reveals their redundancies.
Stephens calls the film a work of “feminist retrieval,” with the hope that by digging into each story, “a nobody becomes a somebody.” Traveling with the film herself seems like a necessary way to complete the project—to have some element that can react and change as she moves the piece from city to city. It’s a rare opportunity for a screening, not just to see a unique version of the film with live voiceover but to maybe—by virtue of being part of the filmmaker’s journey—be part of the project’s development itself.