Filmmaker, film theorist, social activist, poet, and author Maya Deren was born in the Ukraine in 1917 as Eleanora Derenkowsky. She came to America in 1922 with her father, a psychiatrist –and her mother, an artist, fleeing the pogroms against Russian Jews in Kiev.
She studied journalism and political science in at Syracuse University in New York, finishing her B.A up at New York University in June 1936, and afterwards received her Master’s degree in English literature from Smith in 1939. In 1943 she made her first film with Alexander Hammid called Meshes of the Afternoon. It was through this association she changed her name to “Maya” at Hammid’s suggestion–“Maya”, a Buddhist term meaning ‘illusion’.
In 1947, Deren took her first trip to Haiti. She wrote a book about her experiences there, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The book is considered by many to be a primary source on the culture and spirituality of Haitian Voudoun. Between 1947-1954, Deren shot a significant amount of video footage in Haiti. She received the first ever Guggenheim Fellowship grant that enabled Deren to finance her travel, complete her film Meditation on Violence, and she went on three additional trips to Haiti through 1954 to document and record Haitian vodou rituals. Deren passed away in 1961, however the footage from her trips was released posthumously in 1977 as a documentary by her husband at the time of her death, Teiji Itō, and his wife Cherel Winett Itō. A collection of her work sits in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
Below, watch some video clips and the full version of the Divine Horsemen documentary.