A camera peers over the edge of a boat, down to the docks, at grinning faces, waving hands, wooden floors strewn with colored streamers and confetti—a celebration of a journey’s beginning. The traveler was Carry Wagner, the owner of a Greenwich Village antique store who visited far flung lands in search of jewellery and other items to sell. She documented her voyages extensively; from South Africa, to the Philippines, to Guatemala, the Harvard Film Archive holds a diverse collection of her home movies. But who was she? What did she feel when travelling? Did she consider herself a filmmaker, or just a woman with a camera?
“You can open a question that is unanswerable,” says filmmaker Courtney Stephens over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. It’s a comment that refers both to the nature of archival material, the unknowingness that comes from delving into an obscure past, and the work of Stephens herself. Wagner’s footage is one of several women’s documents featured in Stephens’s project Terra Femme, most recently performed as part of the 2020 Open City Documentary Festival in its online edition. The part-video essay, part-lecture contains a selection of amateur travelogues, films shot by women between the 1920s and 1940s, that depict a vast range of landscape, travels, and experiences.
In addition to Wagner, there is also Kate Tode, who, along with her husband Arthur, owned a film camera and regularly travelled, documenting their trips. Another, Ursula Graham Bower, was a British anthropologist who received permission from the British government to live among the Naga people of northeastern India in the 1930s to film them, and later, having earned their trust, was asked during the Second World War to mobilize them into a scout army to fend off Japanese incursions. This vast spectrum of female travelers and their disparately fraught interactions with the world around them are expressed by Terra Femme’s fascinating and insightful approach.
“What does the narrative of exploration offer women?” Stephens asks in her voiceover narration. For the women whose films appear in Terra Femme, traversing the globe in the early decades of the 20th century, travel was still deemed a dangerous pursuit. Did these chances at agency and liberation actually put their freedom at risk? “In Western mythology,” Stephens continues, citing the tales of Persephone and Daphne, “the world swallows women.” At the mercy of the decisions of others, how does a woman stop herself from becoming an object within her own story? The desire to answer my opening questions, about who Carry Wagner was and how she felt, is one such act of objectification. The women of Terra Femme decided to turn the camera on something other that themselves.
During the discussion following the performance at the Open City Documentary Festival, writer and critic Aveek Sen noted Stephen’s own act of turning the camera back onto these women and their experiences. Stephens was originally working on a different project during her time in India on a Fulbright Scholarship, researching British female colonial travelogues and materials ranging from cookbooks to housekeeping manuals, diaries and letters. In trying to compile her findings, she stumbled upon further footage which provided a clearer outline to her work and productively limited the scope of her search. The new material became more workable than her sprawling initial ideas, and yet still, through these documented acts of “self-making” (which Stephens describes as “made for the maker herself as a form of visual diary”), an enormously complex project has emerged.
Further unanswerable questions might be: how can we navigate archive material that at once liberates and constricts, and how could it be presented in such a way that neither negates nor upholds either aspect? These questions are at the heart of Terra Femme. While the images in the project are profound documents of their makers’ freedom in male-dominated spaces, in many cases they are also implicated in their own hierarchies of class, whiteness, empire, and colonialism. Describing the footage herself, Stephens says, “Many of the films are examples of mixed vantage points, both marginal by gender, and dominant by class and race. And that raises a lot of questions that are relevant to the challenges of today: ally-ship, different feminisms, the against-the-grain capacities of dominant narratives.”
“Do modes of objectification and exoticism differ in women’s films than in those of Western men?” Stephens asks over the work of Adelaide Pearson, a wealthy philanthropist who travelled and filmed with the intention of bringing a “cosmopolitan education” back to her small coastal town. In her clips, we see a dancer from a Berber tribe and later an ashram in India with what is thought to be the first color footage recorded of Mahatma Gandhi. As with Carry Wagner’s films, there is beauty in Pearson’s quiet observations of life and work in communities very different to her own. Yet, as Wagner returned to America with trinkets and antiques to sell from these countries, Pearson returned home with her films as documents of her findings abroad, her cultural empowerment coming by way of the exoticization of the Other.
In thinking about contemporary challenges and “self-making”, another figure featured in the project stands out. An international explorer and filmmaker appropriately known as Aloha Wanderwell was a young woman recruited to an expedition funded by Ford Motor Company to race Model Ts around the world and visit as many countries as possible. Her travel films made her a celebrity, and her persona prompted me to think further about a lineage of women’s acts of self-documentation extending to the present, the rapid rise of platforms such as YouTube as contexts for individuals’ home movies or vlogs, and how these modes of personal filmmaking have merged together over time. “I definitely thought a lot about the overdetermined gaze as it relates to travel photography and self-documentation, and there are definitely implications for contemporary social media practices,” Stephens says. “What's interesting about these films for me is that in their sort of ‘ideal’ form, they're not in a mode of self-documentation as much as they are in some sense films of pure perspective. And that makes them much more challenging to interpret and see inside of.”
Notions of “pure perspective,” returning to the idea of the camera turned outwards, are what make the work in Terra Femme so intriguingly complicated. “I’m attempting to hold material that is really, truly conflicted in large historical ways, and still maintain a sense of artistic admiration alongside the ambivalence,” Stephens says. She goes on to say that:
There is an idea when you’re scavenging around in archives that you're doing the work of feminist retrieval, and you’re going to be able to stumble into other peoples lives and experiences in ways that resolve your own, or offer a gift to the present. And there's something really attractive about that. But what is found is usually more fraught, thorny, and full of the ‘bad old days,’ as Rick Prelinger calls it. But one still has to contend with the beauty in the films while applying a critical apparatus.
There is an overarching sense of projection with the piece, both engaging with questions of what is wanted or needed of these images, and also how that can be overcome.
Towards the end of Terra Femme Stephens grapples with her own instinct to imagine the life of one subject, J. Shipley Dixon, to enact a romanticization of her life that is perhaps often committed with intriguing archival work. “Here was this anonymous, marginal character, that you kind of pity because she’s been written out of the historical record,” she explains, adding that these fascinations with such lost work of women might have “let her off the hook for some of the visual modes she does not escape, cliche and forms of exoticism.” Are these subjects then truly pioneering, or deeply implicated? “Both,” Stephens says, “there isn’t one meaning here. If there is anything I hope people take away from this project, it isn’t so much a single idea about how women see the world, or the ‘female gaze,’ it’s the illusion of something that purports to be a neutral gaze, and violence done in the name of neutrality.”