Maya Deren: 50 Years On at BFI South Bank

We remember one of experimental cinema‘s most inspiring and charismatic figures


4 – 12 October

Introduction by Elinor Cleghorn

October 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of visionary filmmaker, theorist and proselytiser Maya Deren. She was born Eleonora Derenkovskaya in Kiev in 1917, and moved with her parents to the US in 1921. Deren’s first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) made in collaboration with her then husband Alexander Hammid, endures as one of the most widely exhibited films in the canon of experimental cinema. Between 1943 and 1955 she completed five more ‘chamber films’ or ‘choreographies for camera’ which emerged from inventive explorations of the medium’s creative potential. Deren famously announced that she ‘made her pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick’. She revered the creative freedom of the amateur filmmaker, seeking an art freed from the strictures of Hollywood and documentary through association with the perceptual qualities of other forms, such as dance and poetry. In 1946, Deren was awarded the first ever Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Work in the Motion Pictures with an application to film ritual activity in Haiti. Her observations of, and fascination with, the dance ceremony of Haitian Voudoun expanded her intense imagination. She considered the filmic instrument, with its unique facility to manipulate time, conjoin unrelated spaces and choreograph bodily movement, could integrate individual elements into a transcendent, ritualised form. Deren’s association with Voudoun has seen her miscast as a ‘voodoo’ priestess, a possessed mystic who blasphemed the gods by giving their names to her unruly cats (one of which, it’s true, she walked on a lead through Central Park). Such mythologising has, however, often veiled her extensive accomplishments. Deren wrote a seminal text on Voudoun, published a wealth of essays, articles and statements, and was a tireless advocate for the exhibition and valorisation of experimental cinema. She died in hospital in New York after a series of cerebral haemorrhages on October 13th 1961, at the age of just 44. In this dedicated season, taking place during the anniversary month, a rich and varied programme of events pays tribute to the art of Maya Deren. Her singular vision and indefatigable commitment influenced and motivated a generation of filmmakers of the North American avant-garde in the 1950s and 1960s, and her inspiration continues to resonate through recent experimental practice. With a unique focus on her contemporary legacy, and the relation of her work to women’s filmmaking in Britain, the resounding significance of Deren’s cinematic ingenuity will be discussed, illustrated and explored, 50 years on.


Fifty years after the death of filmmaker Maya Deren, the art and influence of one of experimental cinema’s most inspiring and charismatic figures is celebrated and explored. We present a dedicated programme of screenings and events.

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Séance for Maya Deren

  • 4 Oct 18:10 NFT2 BOOK

Three filmmakers screen and discuss their Maya Deren-inspired work.

Invocation: Maya Deren + Introduction by Jo Ann Kaplan

  • 6 Oct 18:30 NFT2 BOOK

Authoritative and beautifully composed homage to Maya Deren’s short but remarkable life.

Maya Deren in Context: British Women’s Filmmaking

  • 9 Oct 18:30 NFT3 BOOK

A programme of films by artists working at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op.

Maya Deren Programme 1: Chamber Films

  • 4 Oct 20:30 NFT2 BOOK
  • 9 Oct 16:20 NFT3 BOOK

Five of Maya Deren’s seminal body of ‘chamber films’, including Meshes of the Afternoon.

Maya Deren Programme 2: Movement and Ritual

  • 5 Oct 18:30 NFT2 BOOK
  • 11 Oct 20:45 NFT3 BOOK

Maya Deren’s study of the martial arts movement, accompanied by posthumously compiled footage of her trips to Haiti.

Maya Deren Programme 3: Fragments and Outtakes

  • 5 Oct 20:45 NFT2 BOOK

Selected fragments of Maya Deren’s ‘abandoned’ films.

Maya Deren: New Reflections

  • 8 Oct 10:30 NFT3 BOOK

One-day symposium exploring the legacy of the visionary filmmaker.

Book Launch & Lecture by John David Rhodes: Meshes of the Afternoon

  • 7 Oct 18:30 NFT3 BOOK

We launch the latest BFI Film Classic book – a study of Maya Deren’s mesmerising short – with an illustrated lecture.

Renewing Deren’s Legacy: Daria Martin

  • 12 Oct 18:10 NFT3 BOOK

Selected works from Daria Martin, a filmmaker who, like Maya Deren, often works with dancers and performers.

Renewing Deren’s Legacy: Jayne Parker

  • 7 Oct 20:30 NFT3 BOOK

Six films from director Jayne Parker, followed by the artist in conversation.

Renewing Deren’s Legacy: Sarah Pucill

  • 11 Oct 18:00 NFT3 BOOK

A programme of films from Sarah Pucil followed by a Q&A.

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Maya Deren (American, 1917–1961) was a visionary of American experimental film in the 1940s and 1950s. A precocious student, she studied poetry and literature at New York University and Smith College, where she became interested in the arts. While working for modern-dance choreographer Katherine Dunham, Deren met her future husband, filmmaker Alexander Hammid, who introduced her to European avant-garde film. In 1943, the couple collaborated on the short film Meshes of the Afternoon, which has since become one of the most widely influential films of the American experimental-film movement.

Deren, who received the first Guggenheim Foundation grant for “creative work in the field of motion pictures” and formed the Creative Film Foundation to broaden support for experimental film, continued making and self-distributing her own films and lecturing and writing about avant-garde cinema theory until her untimely death at the age of forty-four. Her pioneering formal innovations—performing in front of the camera, using semiautobiographical content, and meshing literary, psychological, and ethnographic disciplines with rigorous technique—inspired future generations of experimental filmmakers.

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