In the Mirror of Maya Deren

(Im Spiegel der Maya Deren, Martina Kudlácek, Austria/Czech Republic/Switzerland/Germany, 2002)


The legend of Maya Deren – as one book series dubs it – has proved an enduring inspiration to experimental artists in many media. An icon of women's cinema, Deren broke through in the essentially male world of the American avant-garde of the '40s with her short classics Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944), works that transformed forever notions like dream-film and dance-film.

She was certainly a one-woman show, as this extensively researched documentary proves – director, writer, actor, dancer, publicist, distributor, theorist. Deren's short and turbulent life was a veritable torrent of inquisitive and expressive force. Apart from her films, she ventured into anthropology, producing the landmark text Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti – whose epigraph, "Great Gods cannot ride little horses", could have been her own motto.

Kudlácek (working under the auspices of Austria's innovative Navigator Film group) seeks out the usual suspects from the film scene of the period (including Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and her second husband, Czech filmmaker Alexander Hammid about whom Kudlácek made an earlier doco), but also many others previously unheard from (including several Haitians) to shed light on Deren's fascinating character.

Kudlácek weaves this portrait from a vast amount of audio-visual material, much of it revelatory: clips, stills, tapes of Deren singing (since snipped out due to rights problems) and speaking, home movies, and tantalising material from unfinished projects. It does not hold back on the gossipy personal stuff: lovers, drugs, trance-induced feats of superhuman strength.

To balance the tone of celebration, there is a note of melancholy – reflecting on the material and personal toll that accompanies any truly marginal or independent career in the arts.

Among the glut of clumsily mimetic docos these days which try to emulate the style of their subjects, In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a lyric poem that really succeeds.

© Adrian Martin June 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search