An Anagram of the Ideas of Filmmaker Maya Deren
© Moira Sullivan, 1997
In 1947 filmmaker Maya Deren received the first Guggenheim Fellowship for creative work in motion pictures based on a proposal for a film on Haitian dance. On trips to Haiti in 1947, 1949 and 1954, she shot several thousand feet of "Voudoun " rituals. (Creole usage by Deren). Deren had previously advanced her craft as a filmmaker and artist by applying principles of Gestalt psychology, duration and a 'mythical method' to the newest art instrument of the 20th century. A creative work was the sum of its parts where in assemblage something new was formed making it a "volatile whole", the foundation of Deren's film work until she arrived in Haiti. Here she reworked her conceptual framework in order to 'render' the logic of Voudoun without manipulation. Four earlier films were distinguished by innovative principles of continuity: "Meshes of the Afternoon "(1943), "At Land", (1944), "A Study for Choreography for Camera "(1945), and "Ritual in Transfigured Time "(1945-6). Based on these achievements, she was awarded the Guggenheim fellowship which partially financed "Meditation on Violence "(1947) and the Haitian footage.
Deren's ethnographic contributions to the study of Haitian Voudoun include not only 20.000 feet of ceremony but recordings of rituals and folk music, a mythological study of the religion--"Divine Horsemen", articles, lectures and television and radio appearances. Her interest in ethnographic dance began in the early 1940's before her filmmaking career was launched, as secretary to choreographer Katherine Dunham. Dunham whose mentor was anthropologist Melville Herskovits had been to Haiti, studied dance and even filmed in 16mm. Through her, Deren met several of her dancers and craftsmen - some of whom were to later collaborate in her films: Talley Beatty, Rita Christiani and lyricist John LaTouche. With access to Dunham's research ,she wrote an early series of articles about religious possession in dance with a focus on the "personality of the possessed". Later with the publication of "Divine Horsemen " the "individual" is obliterated, serving as a vehicle for the "loa "(gods). This also corresponded with formal concerns in film beginning with "Ritual in Transfigured Time ", where the individual becomes a part of a larger collective consciousness. Deren tackled the interrelationship between magic, science and religion which according to Bronislaw Malinowski was the apex of modernism. This research was interrupted during her early years as a filmmaker and returned to full circle with the Haitian footage and discourse written during the 1940's and 1950's, illustrating a foundation of knowledge that accompanied her as a filmmaker into a Haitian "hounfor" (temple).
Although Deren abandoned a preliminary plan for a film in Haiti it is important to emphasize ceremonial footage shot in Haiti embracing principles of choreocinema. Her initial filmmaking project grew out of a collaboration with Gregory Bateson and was inspired by his review of the arrangement of cultural artefacts at the 1946 South Sea Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Bateson compared it to a symphony where themes introduced were picked up in another movement. Deren requested to loan Balinese footage from Margaret Mead and Bateson from their field work of the 1930's to be edited into a "cross-cultural fugue" of Haitian and Balinese ritual and Western children's games. Deren intended to link these three themes as a "cinepoem" in "choreocinematic" form. In field studies she noted the articulations of a mythical discipline which infused matter with spirit and in order to respect the "ceremonial logic" in representation, abandoned her "cinepoem".
Not long after arriving in Haiti Deren decided on extensive documentation of Haitian Voudoun ceremony. Retakes within this material are extremely rare. On the back of Deren's Bolex was taped "Speed Stop Focus Finder Motor". These prompts allowed her to safeguard shots that could never be redone as she would "shoot to cut " to eliminate post-editing and "plan by eye "- prepare a visual shorthand of the pro-filmic event. The traditional use of footage accompanied by expert witness and testimony was rejected for a film with music. Aware of the potential of documentary film to create a fiction through editing, Deren was determined to represent Voudoun rituals with respect to their mythic origin. With this goal, she was successful ,which not only the footage but "Divine Horsemen" confirms.
The Haitian footage is housed at Anthology Film Archives, acquired through Grove Press in 1972. Parts 1-4 and 7 were shot in December 1947 and on a later trip in 1949 and parts 5-6 were shot in 1954. Deren wrote that the precedence for filming in Haiti was rare for in those instances in which it was permitted, ceremonies were interrupted by comments or gestures which destroyed the ritual. Because animal sacrifices were forbidden in Haiti, photography had also been discouraged. Although it was unusual for an outsider to be permitted into ceremonies Deren was allowed through her association with Isnard, the houngan (priest) of a "hounfor " (temple) outside Port-au-Prince. She described the major portion of the initial 5,400 ft. footage as an eight day "ceremony caille"- a benediction to the "loa" or deity of the "hounfor". The basic form of the ceremonies was similar so she was able to capture aspects from different perspectives of religious drawings made of corn meal, or "vevers", chicken and goat sacrifices offered to the four directions and other ceremonial preparations. There are numerous possessions in a variety of forms where the individual is dressed in the accouterments of the god or in ordinary attire. In addition drumming, singing and forms of prayer are filmed.
"In the second batch of my material", Deren wrote "I concentrated on various dance and ritual movements, many of which photographed in slow motion, with the action of the body clearly delineated." The footage of 1954 contains ceremonies, documentation of Voudoun altars, carnivals and festivals and everyday Haitian life. She wrote of her dedication to this material "sitting over the viewer, the splicer, - so many nights - pushing together shots which would not marry", calling "the creative act fundamentally unreasonable and irrational. . . Whenever I tried to 'stop a moment', to isolate it from its context it projected an impression which was not at all what the Haitians meant. In fact it often did not even look like dance - at least dance in the sense in which we think of it. And it became clear to me that certain fundamentals governing ritual had to be established before any specific statements about Haitian dance could be made to make sense. . . Dance is only part of the ritual and its form is governed by the larger pattern, rather than being contained in itself. This larger 'logic' is known, rather than constantly 'visible', and for this reason the dance may seem itself formless and anarchic." ( From Deren's notes housed at Boston University Mugar Library, Special Collections)
During visits to Haiti Deren negotiated with several production companies wanting documentaries, projects which for various reasons were canceled. She tried to release her material through grant foundations, production companies and television without success, the largest frustration of her filmmaking career. Insisting on creative control, funding was difficult to obtain. Borrowing editing facilities wherever she could, in her renewal to the Guggenheim she submitted four categories of footage for consideration. "This material has actually two separate values. Until I sat down and carefully went through it to make an outline catalog of the 5,400 feet, I had failed to realize that quite independent of its aesthetic value in relation to my film, it had enormous historical and anthropological value as well. It seems that my ability to establish unusually sympathetic relations with the Haitian country people resulted in the recording of ritual material which had not previously been put on motion-picture film."
( From Deren's notes housed at Boston University Mugar Library, Special Collections)
Failing to acquire renewal on the basis of this intention, Deren tried to illicit anthropological interest in her film. Despite support from Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Melville Herskovits, orthodox anthropologists rejected the footage because she was not a trained observational field worker. And Deren disagreed with them "In effect, sensitivity to form", she wrote, "provides the artist with a vast area of clues and data that might elude the professional anthropologist whose training emphasized... 'scientific' detachment [muffing] his normal sensitivity and responsiveness [and making him] dependent upon the vagaries of informants' memory, intelligence and articulations." ("Divine Horsemen"). She argued that verbal information even in Western culture is unreliable and would not be sufficient in Haiti "in a language which is largely imagistic and in reference to a religion which is completely couched in ritualist action". ("Divine Horsemen"). Criticizing the dualism of anthropology, she stated that African cultures are "predicated on the notion that truth can be apprehended only when every cell of brain and body - the totality of a human being is engaged in that pursuit". ("Divine Horsemen").