At MacDowell: Jonathan Gourlay – Courtney Stephens makes films with an anthropologist’s eye




For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 04-03-2024 8:30 AM

Filmmaker Courtney Stephens brings an anthropologist’s keen observational skills to the subjects of her films, whether creating documentaries or experimental shorts exploring language, historical geography and women's lives. 

On Friday, she’ll present clips of her documentary work, talk about her current project and introduce an eight-minute short called “Perfect Fifths” that was shot at MacDowell in 2019. She’ll add narrative backstory and insights regarding her creative practice. Free and open to all, the April 5 installment of MacDowell Downtown will be presented in Bass Hall at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture, 19 Grove St. in Peterborough, at 7:30 p.m.

Currently at MacDowell for her second fellowship, Stephens is working on a semi-fictional feature about a woman coming to terms with her doctor father's death and a documentary about cultural icon John C. Lilly.

“I read his books in college, and returned to him when thinking about a project involving the use of animals by U.S. intelligence, but it’s evolved into much more,” Stephens said.

In collaboration with MacDowell Fellow and independent filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the filmmakers will illuminate the man whose use of the sensory deprivation tank and scientific research inspired the feature films “Altered States” and “Day of the Dolphin.”

Stephens, who received her bachelor’s degree in medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned an MFA at the American Film Institute in California, said it now seems those courses of study are merging in “two films that are about fringe medicine, to some extent.”

When last here in 2019, Stephens completed editing her documentary “The American Sector,” a look at how sections of the dismantled Berlin Wall are displayed at various sites around the United States. The film was a collaboration with MacDowell Fellow Pacho Velez that intended to discover what the dismantled sections of the iconic wall represented to observers in various locations from shopping malls to a Vegas casino.

“We thought it would reveal some of the divisions of left and right in the country, and how they talk about the past. It ended up revealing much more about the nature of memory, how different generations view our past. It turns out that young people are not as caught up in dwelling on the Cold War as others,” she said.

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Stephens’ films have been featured at the Berlinale, MoMA, New York Film Festival, National Gallery of Art and film festivals around the world. Her most-recent full-length film, “Terra Femme,” was assembled from an early 20th century archive of amateur travelogues shot by women. Stephens often performs live narration, perhaps informed by her anthropological framing of the world. After its 2021 premiere at MoMA, “Terra Femme” was named as a New York Times critic's pick and went on to be screened at more than 60 museums, festivals and universities.

“Perfect Fifths” is a meditative eight-minute documentary featuring performance artist and MacDowell Downtown alumnus, JJJJJerome Ellis. Stephens uses footage of Ellis tuning a piano in his studio to draw attention to intervals occurring in music, language and time. With the audience still focused on the world’s musical nature, the program will conclude with live music performed by composer and two-time fellow Billy Newman.

To get a deep dive into this insightful filmmaker’s process and view of the subject matter examined in her non-fiction art, don’t miss this second iteration of the season’s MacDowell Downtown at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture April 5. Doors will open at 7 p.m., with the program kicking off at 7:30 p.m.

If you go

Who: Filmmaker Courtney Stephens

What: MacDowell Downtown April 5, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: The Monadnock Center for History and Culture, 19 Grove St., Peterborough.

Jonathan Gourlay is senior manager for external communications at MacDowell.