Experimental and avant-garde film is generally defined as being made outside of the film industry on an artisanal basis and disregarding and redefining the traditional structures of narrative film. Many experimental films involve arts from other disciplines such as painting, dance, literature, and poetry.
“The task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art but to experiment with the effects contemporary technical devices have on nerves, minds, or souls.” – Maya Deren
Maya Deren, originally named Eleanora Derekowsky, was born in 1917 in Kiev, Ukraine. She died on October 13, 1961, in New York City. The pioneering female filmmaker is both a director and performer and is seen as the “mother” of American avant-garde filmmaking. Her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)—which she co-directed with her husband Alexander Hammid—is one of the most influential works of American experimental film. The film portrays a web of dream events in which Deren plays the central character. It is often considered one of the first important American experimental films.
Her first film as a solo director, At Land (1944), is another lyrical, fantastical and beautiful interpretation of a dream-like story. The lines of time and space blurred as she reaches up across tree roots and makes a difficult climb, only to discover herself climbing horizontally along a long table as bourgeoisie guests drink and smoke, oblivious to her. At the head of the table, a man abandons a game of chess; fascinated, Deren gazes at the board, the pieces moving of their own accord. She reaches after a pawn as it falls to the floor, down a waterfall. The universe, rather than the protagonist, is in charge of the narrative, guiding and forcing the woman—portrayed by Deren—in the direction it wishes. In At Land, Deren displays a sensuous love for cinematography, a sharp understanding of universal human nature and symbolism, and a fascination for the dream-like state.
The dynamic of the Odyssey is reversed and the protagonist, instead of undertaking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will, and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy. – Maya Deren on At Land
Deren was also greatly inspired by modern dance. She worked for choreographer Kathryn Dunham and toured with her dance troupe in 1941. She explored the cinematography of dance and movement in many of her films such as A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation on Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1954). Her deep interest in dance and ritual led her to Haiti in 1947 to research and film Voudoun culture. She never completed her planned film on the subject although she authored a well-regarded book on the topic, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.
I first discovered Deren in an avant-garde film class and was enthralled by everything she created instantaneously. At Land (1944) quickly shot up my favorite films list, and I immediately became interested in creating my own experimental short films, mostly inspired by my own dreams or the dream-like sequencing that Deren employed so perfectly. Her work has been more influential in the films I have directed and created than any other filmmaker I admire.
Before her death, Deren completed five short films and left behind many unfinished works such as The Witches’ Cradle. Each of her films is brilliant and electric, redefining what it means to be an experimental or avant-garde filmmaker. In addition to her filmmaking, Deren lectured, taught and wrote extensively on independent film. She also founded the Creative Film Foundation, which provides funding and support for independent filmmakers. She was a pioneer for both female filmmakers and the American avant-garde industry as a whole.
Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.