In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maya Deren

  • Introduction
  • Biographical Works
  • Comprehensive Monographs
  • Film Career
  • Feminist Film Theory
  • American Avant-Garde
  • Experimental Filmmaking
  • Influence on Dancefilm
  • Film and Art Criticism
  • An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film
  • Anthropological and Ethnographic Research
  • Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
  • Creative Tributes

Cinema and Media Studies Maya Deren
Theresa Geller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0115


Maya Deren (b. 1917–d. 1961) completed only six films and two monographs in her lifetime, yet she made a huge impact on the history of cinema and the avant-garde specifically. Indeed, she continues to inspire a wide range of artists, from filmmakers to visual artists and musicians. Although she had established a name for herself from a young age as a leader in the Young People’s Socialist League, as well as having published as a journalist and a poet, and earning a master’s degree from Smith College, Deren is best known for her first short film: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Shot on 16 mm film, made for just a few hundred dollars and with only two people, Deren and her husband (Czech filmmaker Alexandr Hackenschmied, who changed his name to Alexander Hammid after immigrating to America), her first film was hugely influential. Awarded the Cannes Festival’s 16 mm Grand Prix Internationale in 1947, the first ever given to an American or a woman, Meshes impacted film history in ways still felt to this day. As most film historians agree, it carved a path for the American avant-garde and gave rise to underground cinema, shepherding European modernism into the film experiments of such filmmakers as Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Andy Warhol, David Lynch, and Cindy Sherman. Although her film work certainly has had a huge effect on everything from music videos to feature-length cinema, and spanning genres from the dance film to ethnographic documentary, Deren’s reach extended far beyond her films alone. She was also a prolific writer and dedicated activist for film art. In order to support independent film artists, she established the Creative Film Foundation (CFF), which inspired Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 as well as the British feminist film collective Circles, among others. Her writings on the philosophy of art and technology foreshadowed some of the most highly regarded work in the field today, especially with regard to theorizing the historical and technological shifts in the experience of time. Then there is Deren’s paradigm-shifting anthropological research on Voudoun in Haiti, which, while influenced by founders of the field such as Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, modeled an outsider ethnographic approach rejecting the dogmas of the previous generation. Uniting such diverse interests was Deren’s commitment to transforming culture, which she ultimately saw as the responsibility of the artist to her society. (This article was completed with the assistance of Laura Stamm.)

Biographical Works

Deren has generated a great deal of biographical research due in part to the wealth of material available, particularly the holdings at Boston University donated by Deren’s mother, noted in Clark, et al. 1984. Indeed, the wealth of this material has produced one of the most complete biographies of an artist: The Legend of Maya Deren. As the editors describe in their interview with the Camera Obscura collective in 1977, they set out to “document” Deren’s life; and despite the first volume clocking in at over 1200 pages, The Legend remains an incomplete project, stopping at 1947, fourteen years before her death. Clark, et al. 1984 documents the early life of Deren, who was born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev, Ukraine. Her parents immigrated to Syracuse, New York, when Maya was very young; she was a naturalized US citizen before she reached her teens. Geller 2011 and Clark, et al. 1984 note that while still in her teens, Elenora was a leader in the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League, where she met and married YPSL activist and union organizer Gregory Bardacke. By twenty, she had completed her undergraduate degree and was divorced, struggling to support herself as a poet and journalist. By 1938 Deren left New York to work with the legendary choreographer and ethnographer, Kathryn Dunham, managing her troupe, as detailed in Clark, et al. 1988. Deren came to Los Angeles with Dunham, where she met and married filmmaker Alexander Hammid, who introduced her to visual media by taking her to foreign films and by teaching her still photography and filmmaking. Deren was transformed by this relationship and embraced her new life by changing her name, in 1943, to “Maya.” With inheritance from her father, she bought a 16 mm Bolex camera and made her first film with Hammid, Meshes of the Afternoon, detailed by Kudlácek 2004. However, it is the life and art community established by Deren in New York City that garners most attention. Film documentaries in Kaplan 1987 and Kudlácek 2004 chronicle Deren’s persona in the art world and her film practice, featuring interviews and clips with Deren. What made Deren a “legend” had to do with her powerful persona and leadership in the arts community, gathering around her a cadre of creative people, noted by O’Pray 1988. As Hurd 2007, Geller 2011, and Kudlácek 2004 point out, the commitment to an artist’s community and the structures to support them impelled Deren to develop structures such as the Creative Film Foundation to support artists generally.

  • Camera Obscura Collective. “Excerpts from an Interview with The Legend of Maya Deren Project: The Camera Obscura Collective.” Camera Obscura 1–2 (1979): 177–191.

    Interview with the editors of The Legend (VèVè Clark, Millicent Hodson, Catrina Neiman, and Francine Bailey) that addresses their research methods and process of working together on the biography. They speak about the difficult project of demythologizing Deren’s persona while also preserving her legend.

  • Clark, VèVè A., Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman, eds. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Work. Vol. 1, Part 1: Signatures (1917–1942). New York: Maple-Vail, 1984.

    A biography filled with primary documents from Deren’s life, including letters, photographs, and interviews with key figures in her life, such as her mother, first husband, friends, employers, and family. Details her formative years consisting of her childhood and education as well as her early publications, poems, and journalism.

  • Clark, VèVè A., Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman, eds. The Legend of Maya Deren. Vol. 1, Part 2: Chambers (1942–1947). New York: Maple-Vail, 1988.

    Part 2 of the biography follows her transition from Eleanora to “Maya,” and the creation of her first four films. Filled with primary documents, incorporating interviews with Alexander Hammid and her large circle of friends and colleagues in the art world, as well as reprints of Maya Deren’s photography, poetry, essay, and film notes.

  • Geller, Theresa L. “Maya Deren.” In Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Phillip DiMare, 623–626. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2011.

    A densely packed short bio of Deren, covering her films, writings, and art activism. Acknowledges the filmmakers she influenced, such as Derek Jarman and Barbara Hammer, and musicians who have recently rescored her films, from Portuguese rock group Mão Morta and British rock group Subterraneans to Japanese-born No Wave music maverick, Ikue Mori.

  • Hurd, Mary G. Women Directors and Their Films. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    In the chapter “Independents, Experiments, Documentaries” Hurd presents a concise but comprehensive biography of Maya Deren. It covers aspects of her personal life, her most famous films, and important references to her founding of the Creative Film Foundation and related involvement with Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16.

  • Kaplan, Jo Ann, dir. Invocation: Maya Deren. VHS. New York: Women Make Movies, 1987.

    Documentary film narrated by actress Helen Mirren. It features a wide range of footage including film from Deren’s journeys to Haiti, interviews with Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, and recordings of Deren’s lectures.

  • Kudlácek, Martina, dir. In the Mirror of Maya Deren, 2001. DVD. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2004.

    This well-reviewed documentary film contains several interviews with central figures in Deren’s life such as Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Alexander Hammid, and others. Focuses not simply on the facts of Deren’s life but tries to capture her persona on film through its experimental montage of 16 mm film, sound clips, and archival material.

  • O’Pray, Michael. “Meshes, Trances, and Meditations.” Monthly Film Bulletin 55.653 (June 1988): 183–185.

    A biographical sketch built from nine brief meditations on aspects of Deren’s history, filmography, and reception. Argues for a serious engagement with Deren, rather than more mythmaking. Introduces brief reviews of Deren’s films that follow in the June and July 1988 issues of Monthly Film Bulletin.

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