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Film-making & Gender Discrimination…

Meshes of the Afternoon, a 1943 short experimental film directed by Maya Deren (April 29, 1917 – October 13, 1961) and her husband Alexander Hammid, shows a woman, that was Maya herself, walking on a mountainous road during noon time. She reached her residence while following a mysterious shadow. She went to the first floor and then, fell asleep near a window. Surprisingly, the dream became a reality, as she found the shadow in her sleep and also herself following the figure! Before she realised whether the figure was her own, a male figure entered into Maya’s house. Maya attacked the man with a sharp weapon. In the last scene, the directors showed that a sanguineous Maya slumped on the chair… dead! The thought process, cinematography and editing are excellent… it’s difficult to believe that the 14-minute film was made way back in 1943!

Maya was a familiar face of American experimental film in the 20th Century. She was born to a Jewish family on April 29, 1917 in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. As her mother was a great fan of Italian actress Eleonora, she named her daughter Eleonora Derenkowska. After spending her school days in Geneva in 1933, Maya arrived in New York to study Journalism and Political Science at Syracuse University. She met social worker Gregory Bardacke, there, and got married to him at the age of 18. After their divorce in 1939, Maya started writing articles for newspapers and poems, apart from concentrating in her hobby – Photography. Her interest in various subjects drew her to renowned ethnographer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. Later, Dunham introduced her to Czech Film Director Alexander Hammid. They got married in 1942, and it was Hammid who had named her ‘Maya‘!

Maya Deren

Maya’s most important works are ‘Meshes of the Afternoon‘ (1943), ‘At Land‘ (1944), ‘The Private Life of a Cat‘ (1944), ‘A Study in Choreography for Camera‘ (1945), ‘Ritual in Transfigured Time‘ (1946) and ‘Meditation on Violence‘ (1948). All of them are short-films, silent and captured in 16mm. All of Maya’s works were experimental, having a deep philosophical root…

Maya was not a great fan of mainstream commercial Hollywood movies or the Italian Neo-realism! She had always criticised Realism in her works and writings. The Neo-realists used to believe that the responsibility of the film was to highlight the social reality. For them, it was necessary for films to become an artistic document of history! They also stressed on the location of shooting, working with amateur actors, and dependency on literature. However, Maya was of the opinion that the goal of creativity was not to follow the reality, but to re-create it! According to the director, reality is not merely a matter of (personal) experience, but a Social Discipline… and, that is why people are afraid of Alternative Realities!

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Just like Friedrich Nietzsche, Maya used to believe that Art means Rebellion! It is hence, she wanted films, as a form of art, to maintain a distance with documentaries. Once, she had said that there was nothing, called ‘Pure Documentary Film‘! According to the Ukrainian-born American experimental filmmaker, the Reality depends on a person’s own perspective, interest and concern. It seems that Maya’s philosophy had a touch of Post-Modernism.

Maya further opposed the idea that films should be based on literature. She never wanted films to play the role of a narrator! Instead, she made an attempt to explore films’ own potential as a form of art. It is to be noted that radio, telephone and aircraft were invented just before Maya started her career as a filmmaker. And, she claimed that all these new discoveries changed the concept of absolute neutral space and time. Film is the art of that changing period of time, she insisted. Therefore, she was interested in creating the new reality.


In her ‘At Land‘, a lady (Maya herself) would emerge from the beach, and join the elite people at a dinner table! Following a fallen pawn of chess, she would cross rivers, forests and many mysterious houses. Finally, she would be able to find the pawn again at the sea beach! The lady returned to the beach only after leaving her footprints everywhere!

The Private Life of a Cat‘ is an artistic document of a mysterious religious practice of Haiti. Maya’s friends did not like her sudden interest in documentary films. However, no one could stop the bohemian Maya from doing what as a form of art she liked. After her separation with Hammid in 1947, Maya landed in Haiti. There, she met Japanese composer and performer Teiji Ito. She married Ito in 1960 after 13 years of courtship! Next year, she died from a brain hemorrhage, brought on by extreme malnutrition, at the age of 44. After her demise, her ashes were scattered at Mount Fuji in Japan.

Maya used to love poetry, too. She may be called ‘Poet of the Film‘. Some find that her works were highly influenced by French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau. Even Maya herself had admitted that before her meeting with Cocteau. Many believe that Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and Sigmund Freud, too, influenced her works. However, no one has so far admitted Maya’s influence on her/his works. Perhaps, she is still neglected in the male-dominated industry because of her gender.

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