Terra Femme

Scene from the film Terra Femme
scene from the essay film TERRA FEMME

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 traveler: 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 explore the attempt to concretize ones 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.

The film is presented as a live lecture-performance, similar to the way these films might have been exhibited nearly a hundred years ago when they were shot.

After the live performance, Courtney Stephens will discuss her work with artist-filmmaker Jessica Bardsley, Visiting Professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.

Part of our Campus Collaborations series. Cosponsored by the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.

Courtney Stephens is a writer/director of non-fiction and experimental films. The American Sector (2021), 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.

To read more about Courtney Stephens and Terra Femme:

“To Describe The World: A Conversation With Courtney Stephens About ‘Terra Femme’”, Another Gaze, July 2021

“Interview: Courtney Stephens”, Film Comment, November 2021