The surrealistic films she made during the 1940s influenced generations of underground and avant garde film makers continuing well into today. Her works are gorgeous and engaging to watch, like a well told dream, with a subtle emotional resonance that goes deep.
She was born in Kiev in 1917 and during the horrible period of violence against jews that swept across the area during the teens and 20s (my own grandparents and their family fled Ukraine at this time) immigrated to the US in 1922.
She was interested in symbolism, writing her Master’s thesis on French symbolism in Anglo-American poetry, later becoming consumed with Dance. When she eventually met her 2nd husband Alexander Hackenschmied, a Czech born photographer and cameraman who had fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Hitler’s advance, she found a medium to explore symbols, subconscious imagery, unconscious narrative and the place where dream, reflection, rhythm, vision, ritual and identity meet.
Maya Deren was also interested in ritual dancing and her dance mentor, Kathleen Dunham wrote a thesis on Haitian dancing, which Deren edited. When in 1947 she went to Haiti to finish one of her films, she became enamored with the haitian Vodoun (voodoo) ritual.
And that was that. She moved to Haiti and immersed herself in the religion, eventually becoming a high priestess. In 1953 she published the book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which documented her knowledge and experience with Vodoun and which is still to this day considered one of the definitive sources on the subject.
She shot 18,000 feet of film footage on Vodoun rituals. She died in 1961 from malnutrition, exasperated by a daily diet of amphetimines and sleeping pills she had been consuming since 1941 when she was a dancer and a doctor prescribed them for her. The editing of the footage was completed by her 3rd husband and his eventual widow in 1977 into the film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which shows all aspects of Vodoun religion and ritual.
Deren discusses in her book how the gods who possess the congregants are living archetypes, rising from the depths of the unconscious to merge with the participant. Obviously this notion interest me immensely, as anyone who ahs sat through one of my diatribes on archetypes and religious mysticism can tell you. she describes a particular possession by Erzulie, the Vodoun Virgin Mary, goddess of love as being engulfed by the white darkness…
Her exploration into the archetypal manifestation of humanity is well represented in her last work, The Very Eye of Night, which depicts dancers like stars, constellations, astrological archetypes adrift in the cosmos, performing their eternal dances.