Maya Deren

1917 - 1961 Artist

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Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev, Ukraine in 1917. Her family fled anti-semitism and moved to New York where they changed their name to Deren. Maya went to school in Geneva and then studied Journalism and Political Science at Syracuse and then at New York University. She completed a Master's degree in English Literature and Symbolist poetry at Smith College in 1939. After college, Deren began working as an assistant to the famous dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, touring and performing across the U.S.

In 1941, Deren met the Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander Hammid while she was in Los Angeles. The two collaborated on Deren's first and most well known film, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943). Subsequently, Deren changed her name to Maya and married Hammid. "Maya" means "illusion" in the Buddhist tradition,"mother" in Sanskrit, and Maya is the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.

Deren's first film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON shows the influence of both early cinematic tricks and the gothic's fascination with the instability of objects and uncanny visions.

Her next film, AT LAND (1944) begins her exploration of social rituals. Starring herself again, Deren climbs a tree which then magically emerges onto a dinner party table. The guests are oblivious to her as she crawls across the dinner table, highlighting their myopia. In MEDITATIONS ON VIOLENCE (1948), Deren films Chao Li Chi performing the Wu Tang ritual. THE VERY EYE OF THE NIGHT (1968) was a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. She also collaborated with Marcel Duchamp on an unfinished piece entitled WITCH'S CRADLE (1943), in which Duchamp starred along with objects in Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery.

Maya Deren's most remarkable accomplishment as an independent filmmaker was her success in filming, editing, producing, and distributing her own films, with the help of only one camerawoman, Hella Heyman. In 1946 she booked the Village's Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition, which in turn inspired Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, an experimental film society in New York. In the late 50s Deren founded the Creative Film Foundation which led to the establishment of the first filmmaker's co-op in New York City.

Her writings on film theory accentuate her achievements as a filmmaker. In 1946, she wrote "An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film", where she describes film as a medium that exists independently of hierarchy, order, or value.

In 1947, Deren won the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prix Internationale. The same year she was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to begin research on the Voudoun (voodoo) ritual in Haiti. She recorded two albums of Voudoun music: "Divine Horsemen" and "Merengues and Folk Ballads of Haiti". She published a definitive study of the Voudoun ritual: "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti". During her three visits to Haiti between 1947 and 1964, she shot over 18,000 feet of footage that remained incomplete at her death. She was also initiated as a Voudoun princess.

She died in 1961 of a cerebral hemorrhage due to a combination of malnutrition and misuse of amphetamines and sleeping pills, aged 41. Her ashes were scattered in Mount Fuji in Japan. Deren's continued efforts to secure financial support for experimental filmmaking were finally answered by the American Film Insititute's establishment of the Maya Deren Award, a grant rewarding contemporary independent filmmakers.