Reflection of Maya
A mite long at 103 minutes (but why quibble?), In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a visually and spiritually rewarding documentary. Young Prague-based Austrian writer-director Martina Kudláček brings a background in Super-8 and 16 mm filmmaking and –preservation, in video, theater and art history to bear on her avant-garde subject, whom she obviously admires but from whom she keeps enough distance to notice both beauty marks and warts.
Moreover, because the too little-known subject of this spiritual biography was herself physical and visual (a dancer-choreographer and astounding filmmaker as well as writer and poetess), this documentary sidesteps the usual lineup of talking heads commenting about someone or something. Instead, we are treated to a wealth of Deren’s own work, lyric passages on time, mutability, various forms of dance and movement, reflecting surfaces and the sea. Even in those free-form interviews here, attention is drawn, not to speaking faces and mouths, but to busy hands shuffling photographs of Maya, unwinding her film, and beating ringed-finger tattoos on shiny conch shells or painting in Haiti, and to effective touches where, for instance, an eighty-ish former dancer conquers a tear by raising her long skirts and shuffling gracefully.
Born Eleanora Derenkovskaya in Kiev to cultured, leftist Jewish parents, Maya – an ancient word for water, we are told, and Buddha’s mother’s name – came to the U.S. at five. Educated at the League of Nations School in Geneva and then at American universities and earning a Master’s Degree in English literature, the young woman’s initial attraction was to dance. Soon, using a second-hand 16 mm Bolex, she turned to experimental films. She never really left the world of choreography, however, for her haunting black-and-white films are paeans to what Faulkner called "non-stasis," to the flux and beauty of change in forms and position, human and otherwise.
Creating a poetic dream intimacy between camera and object in her short "chamber films" – excepting two (unfinished) compilations, all under twenty-nine minutes – the filmmaker emphasized the duality inherent in things. Women are veiled then unveiled, land turns into sea, stark chess pieces acquire their female players’ egos, scrim stars cross the sky. All is movement, the fiery Heraclitean wheel of becoming, particularly the human body. Recording herself running up stairs or along sand to enter surf, or the explosive grace of dancers, she captured the otherworldly in and behind the human form. One thinks of Riefenstahl’s monumantalistic Olympic athletes, but simpler, without noxious sociopolitical implication.
Distinct from this age of many militant ism’s, Deren did not emphasize "feminism," but "female," the child-bearing, patient insight that sees vertically, deeply, through time to metamorphosis, rather than the "masculine" horizontality of the "now" moment. This view led her to a wide variety of projects – half of her films were unfinished or unpublished – including a fascination with children’s games as ritual and, to a greater degree, almost an obsession with Haiti, where she spent months filming voodoo ceremony and dance. Together with the latter work (the uncompleted four-hour Haitian Film Footage.), her early essay, "Religious Possession in Dancing," and an ethnographical study titled Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, testify to a vision of dance-induced trance as a gateway to man’s spiritual side.
Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the first American as well as first woman to be awarded the Cannes Festival Grand Prix for experimental 16 mm film, active in the coterie of famous Greenwich Village artists in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Maya Deren died in 1961, of perhaps debatable causes. She was forty-four.
Although at least one close friend says that she had peaked and would not have dealt well with the aging process, still one wonders how this brilliantly talented avant-garde figure can be so unknown today. Here, talented artists and dancers and collaborators comment on her work; Utne has included her among its "40 Past Masters Who Still Matter"; and New York City’s important Anthology Film Archives has its film and video Maya Deren Theater. One hopes that In the Mirror of Maya Deren will restore this remarkable woman to a deserved niche among our visionary creators.
(Released by Sixpack Film; not rated by MPAA.)