Maya Deren (1917-1961) wore many hats in her brief lifetime: avant-garde filmmaker, documentarian, author, and Voudoun priestess, to name a few. Her influence, especially in independent film, has not only endured but also increased in the decades following her death. Deren was a seminal figure among independent filmmakers about whom legends sprung. Her reputation as a filmmaker rests on only seven short completed films in her lifetime and five unfinished films, though one was edited and released after her death. In the early 21st century Deren, who by then had been dead for more than 40 years, was still discussed as a fresh voice and a "past master who still matters," as the magazine Utne Reader declared her.
Deren was born Eleanora Solomonovna Derenkovsky on April 29, 1917, in Kiev, Ukraine, less than two months after the Russian Revolution that forced the Tsar's abdication (but prior to the Bolshevik takeover). Her parents were members of Kiev's intelligentsia: her mother, Marie, had studied music and her father, Solomon, was a psychiatrist. The period between 1917 and 1922, Deren's early years, was a time of political and economic upheaval in Russia and Ukraine. The five-year span saw the Tsar's abdication; the two revolutions of 1917, the second of which brought the Bolsheviks to power; Russia's capitulation in the First World War; the civil war; and the formation of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Ukraine, which had been part of the tsarist empire, declared itself an independent nation on January 22, 1918, but in 1922 it became a constituent republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Despite all of this, the Derenkovsky family led a relatively secure life.
All of that changed by 1922. The economy was in such a shambles that even Lenin had retreated from hardline communism toward a "New Economic Policy." A more important factor in the Derenkovskys' decision to emigrate was a recurrence of pogroms (organized massacres of Jews) in Ukraine. The family eventually settled in Syracuse, New York, where Solomon Derenkovsky's brother lived. After a period of adjustment Solomon Derenkovsky set up his psychiatric practice and the family name was shortened to Deren.
Young Eleanora Deren attended primary school in Syracuse until 1930 when she was sent to Switzerland to attend Ecole Internationale de Geneve, which was founded under the auspices of the League of Nations (the immediate predecessor of the United Nations). Deren remained in Switzerland for three years studying French, German, and Russian. When she returned to the United States in 1933 she enrolled at Syracuse University, where she studied journalism until 1935. At this time Deren joined the Young People's Socialist League, a Trotskyite organization. Among the political activists she became involved with was Gregory Bardacke, whom she married in 1935. Deren and Bardacke moved to New York City, and Deren transferred to New York University (NYU) from which she graduated in 1936. At NYU Deren first became interested in photography and film. Deren then went on to study literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; she was awarded an M.A. in 1939. By then Deren and Bardacke had divorced. Deren's initial career path was the publishing industry. She worked briefly as a writers' and publishers' factotum, all the while writing poetry herself.
Soon she met and began working as a secretary for Katherine Dunham, who was to have a profound influence on the directions Deren's career would take. Dunham was a choreographer and an anthropologist who had founded an African American dance company. It was while working for Dunham in Los Angeles in 1941, where Deren lived with her mother (Deren's parents ultimately divorced), that she met Alexander Hammid; ten years Deren's senior, he became another influence on her career. Hammid (original name Hackenschmied) was a Czechoslovakian refugee who came to the United States to work as a motion picture photographer for "The March of Time" newsreels. Deren and Hammid were married in 1942 and it was he who provided the stimulus for Deren's filmic imagination. During this time, possibly at Hammid's suggestion, Deren changed her first name to Maya, the Sanskrit word for illusion.
At the time of her marriage Deren was primarily a writer, with poetry, newspaper articles, short stories, and essays to her credit. One of her essays, written no doubt under the eye of Dunham, discussed religious possession in dancing—a theme that would later command her attention. In 1943 Solomon Deren died and left Deren a small inheritance with which she purchased a second-hand Bolex 16mm camera, which she and Hamid used to make the film Meshes in the Afternoon. While Meshes in the Afternoon is considered her first film by most film historians, filmmaker Stan Brakhage in his essay on Deren (published in Film at Wit's End ) discussed the idea that a study of the photography reveals it is primarily Hammid's film: "For all the unusual things that happen within the film, its whole style of photography betrays the slick, polished, penultimate craftsmanship of the old European sensibility for which Sasha [Hammid] was known." Nevertheless Brakhage does acknowledge "the real force of the film came from Maya herself."
Deren and Hammid moved to New York City where her electric personality really took off. Soon she was regularly screening Meshes in the Afternoon and lecturing the audience on independent filmmaking. This caused a natural friction with Hammid who felt he was being slighted. In 1943 Deren began another film, Witch's Cradle, but it remained unfinished. The most notable aspects of the film were that it was shot at an art gallery where a surrealist exhibition was taking place and that it included Marcel Duchamp. Deren followed up this attempt with the 15-minute film, At Land, which featured Deren herself on different landscapes: merticulously crawling on rocks, walking along what appears to be a cart path with a man who changes appearances. The film included brief appearances by poet and critic Parker Tyler, composer John Cage, and Hammid.
In 1945 Deren and Hammid decided to make a second film together in which Hammid would take the lead in directing and filming. The result was the 30-minute The Private Life of a Cat. Here again Stan Brakhage, who was a friend and something of a protégé of Deren, disputes the claim of film historians who say that Deren's imput was minimal. However The Private Life of a Cat did not boost Hammid's reputation the way Meshes had lifted Deren's. Also in 1945 Deren made A Study in Choreography for Camera, a 2 1/2-minute film that featured choreographer Talley Beatty who was also credited as co-director.
1946 was a busy year for Deren. She rented the Provincetown Playhouse n New York City and screened Meshes in the Afternoon, At Land, and A Study in Choreography for Camera. The program, which ran several evenings, was titled "Three Abandoned Films." She published An Anagram of Art, Form, and Film and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for "Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures." Deren was the first filmmaker to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. That year Deren also completed Ritual in Transfigured Time.
In 1947 she presented Meshes in the Afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix International in the category of 16mm Film, Experimental Class. It was the first time the award went to a film produced in the United States and the first time a female director was honored. Deren and Hammid were divorced that year, and Deren began making trips to Haiti to observe and film Voudoun rituals and dance. The result was that over the next eight years her focus began to shift away from film and onto Voudoun culture. Deren's involvement with Voudoun became the source of most of the legends that surrounded her life.
In between trips to Haiti, Deren completed Meditation on Violence (1948). This was to be her only completed film for the next seven years as she spent a total of nearly two years in Haiti working on her Voudoun ritual project. In 1949 she began but left unfinished Medusa, and in 1951 she abandoned Ensemble for Somnambulists. By that time she had met and fallen in love with a young Japanese musician, Teiji Ito. Ito was 15 years old at the time of their meeting (Deren was 43), and Deren became both his mentor and lover; they lived together in New York and traveled to Haiti. In 1953 Deren published Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a study of Haitian deities, rituals, and practices. The work had the assistance of anthropologist Gregory Bateson and was edited by Joseph Campbell. In the book Deren defined myth as "facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter." When the book was republished in 1970 Campbell wrote a second foreword (he had also written a foreword to the first edition) in which he summed up the work by saying: "It has always been my finding that the poet and the artist are better qualified both by temperament and by training to intuit and interpret the sense of the mythological figure than the university-trained empiricist. And rereading today, after twenty years, Maya Deren's celebration of the gods by whom her own life and personality were transformed, I am reconfirmed in that finding; reconfirmed, also, in my long-held belief that this little volume is the most illuminating introduction that has yet been rendered to the whole marvel of the Haitian mystères as 'facts of the mind.' "
By the time Deren had finished filming in Haiti she had shot more than 18,000 feet of film, but as Brakhage attests the amount of footage overwhelmed Deren and she could not complete the job of editing. Her own Voudoun practice continued, however, which may have been the reason for her inability to edit the footage. The deeper Deren became involved in the religion the harder it was for her to believe in the efficacy of the film document of the rituals. Deren's practice included regular dance rituals in her apartment as well as performing a Voudoun ritual at the marriage of dancer Geoffrey Holder, whereupon she went into a trance, witnessed by Brakhage, in which she displayed amazing physical strength and fits of violence. But Deren's Voudoun legend did not end there.
Her final film, The Very Eye of Night, was completed in 1955, but because of financial problems it did not premiere until 1959. The film had its premiere in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a soundtrack by Teiji Ito. The delay caused a rift between Deren and her backer, lyricist John Latouche, with the supposed result being that Deren put a Voudoun curse on Latouche, who died soon afterward.
In the late 1950s Deren established the Creative Film Foundation and in 1960 she married Teiji Ito. She had also begun the "Haiku Film Project," but it never went beyond the planning stage. In 1961 Deren and Ito traveled to New England to claim his inheritance following the death of his father. Ito's family sought to block the claim and Deren became apoplectic (showing signs of a stroke). The fit, whether Voudoun inspired or not, caused her to have a cerebral hemmorage, and she lapsed into a two-week coma from which she never awoke. Deren died on October 13, 1961, in New York City. The fact that it was Friday the 13th also contributed to her legend. Some believe she was the victim of a counter-curse placed on her by friends of Latouche. Another possible (and more rational) cause of her stroke was the so-called vitamin shots Deren had been receiving. These contained amphetamines.
After her death, the Haitian footage was offered to many filmmakers to edit, but all refused. In the 1980s Teiji Ito and his new wife Cherel completed the editing process and, with a soundtrack by Ito, the completed film became Divine Horsemen. In 1985 the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award for independent filmmaking.
Brakhage, Stan, Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers, McPherson & Company, 1989.
Deren, Maya, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, McPherson & Company, 1953, 1970.
Utne Reader, November-December 1991.
"The Life of Maya Deren," Zeitgeist Films, http: //www.zeitgeistfilms.com/current/mayaderen/mayaderenbio.html (January 20, 2003).
"Maya Deren," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/+Maya (January 27, 2003).