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Maya Deren

Click here, on the image above, to see Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

The foremost feminist experimental filmmaker of the 1940s, and one of the key founders of the New American Cinema, Maya Deren led a brief and tempestuous life, during which she completed a handful of mesmeric films under the most difficult circumstances, working in 16mm black and white with the smallest of budgets. Of all her films, I like Meshes of the Afternoon the best, and her last, and most ambitious film, the nearly feature-length Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which she never got to complete, but which, in its 1985 incarnation, comes very close to her original vision of the film, and is a fascinating document of the culture and customs of Haiti during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As usual, Deren shot the footage for Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti on her own, using the barest essentials; a spring windup Bolex, that most durable of cameras because it requires no batteries, and 100′ daylight spools of 16mm film. Dderen was a true and uncompromising original, and her work remains as daring and enigmatic today as it when it was first released.

Her key works include:

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
At Land (1944)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)
Meditation on Violence (1948)
The Very Eye of Night (1958)
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985)
(Original footage shot by Deren 1947-1954; completed by Teiji & Cherel Ito.)

But filmmaking was only part of her work as an artist. Here is a superb essay by Wendy Haslem on Deren and her work. As Haslem notes: “Whilst she is first recognized by this image, what is little known is that Deren was also a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer. In the cinema she was a director, writer, cinematographer, editor, performer, entrepreneur and pioneer in experimental filmmaking in the United States. Like Jean-Luc Godard and Sergei Eisenstein, Maya Deren was both a film theorist and a filmmaker. Unlike these luminaries, Deren’s writing remains relatively obscure in film theory and her films are rarely screened outside of experimental or feminist film courses.”

You can read Wendy Haslem’s entire essay here.

Maya Deren in the editing room, 1940s

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About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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