MAYA DEREN – Her Life and Work

The Beginning

Born in 1917 as Eleonora Derenkowska in the land of what is known today as Ukraine, she was to become a central figure of the American avant-garde for her ground-breaking work in experimental film. At the arrival of her family in New York in 1922 her name was changed to Maya Deren. A name that holds the mysticism of a hindu goddess holding a veil in front of her eyes which makes it impossible to see the truth.

Extremely passionate about dance, she discovered the medium of film to create a unique experience through surreal, conceptual, black-and-white short films. A perfect mix of dance, Haitian Voodo (learned during her trips to Haiti between 1947 and 1955) and subjective psychology (her father was a psychiatrist). 

What I do in my films, I think is very distinctive. They are the films of a woman and I think their characteristic time quality is the time quality of a woman… A woman has strength to wait. Because she had to wait. She waits nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness.

Maya Deren

Gaining Recognition

Maya didn’t fit into neat categories. She was filmmaker, choreographer, dancer, film theorist, poet, lecturer, writer and photographer. In 1943 she made her first film with Alexander Hammid called Meshes of the Afternoon, followed by five more short films: At Land (1944), A Study for Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-1946), Meditation on Violence (1947) and The Very Eye of Night (1959). She also made several uncompleted films, including The Witches Cradle ( 1944) with artist Marcel Duchamp. During her trips to Haiti, she also intended to realise a documentary, which she never completed. Instead, she wrote a book titled Divine Horsemen. The living Gods in Haiti (edited by Joseph Campbell in 1952). 

In 1947 Maya was the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim price for her creative work in film. She was an incredible figure in all aspects, an unstoppable creative force whose camera work is still considered innovative. Her work gained recognition in a male-dominated industry at a time when there was little room for women in the film industry.

Innovating the Industry

Maya Deren is mainly known for her inventive editing and her manipulation of time and space, using techniques like multiple exposures, jump cutting, superimposition, slow-motion amongst others. Additionally, she was a thoughtful filmmaker who wrote numerous essays on her film practice and cinema as an art form. Deren was particularly interested in amateurism, the body and the manipulation of reality. 

Amateurism and the Body

Amateurism was very popular in America at the time. It was valued as a practice of invention, industriousness and a love for the craft. For Deren amateurism meant freedom to pursue any theme or stylistic experiment, without focusing too much on commercialism. Indeed she believed that a really original and creative work relied on being able to afford failure. 

Deren interest in the body extended to herself as a filmmaker. She was convinced that the best equipment for a filmmaker was her/his own body, because the body is the most flexible and mobile instrument available. 

Maya was not interested in abstraction. Instead, she saw her everyday world as the foundation to manipulate. She was fascinated by the possibilities of “accidents” that happened during shoots; the uncontrolled and spontaneous elements of reality itself (irregularity of the waves, texture of stones and sand). Despite this fascination for reality, she believed that all these elements should be manipulated to create a reality that could only exist on screen. 

A great woman and a modern myth to be witnessed and appreciate today. Don’t miss out our special retrospective on Maya Deren on Friday 8 March at 16.00.

During Cinedans FEST we are also hosting an exclusive online screening of the documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren. Watch it here.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *