“Maya did things in the forties that other women didn’t do. Somehow we never got the idea that a woman could be a film director. It’s very difficult to conceive that something can be done if it hasn’t been done before. It always requires an innovator, a heretic. And Maya was a heretic.” - Hella Hammid
Maya was a heretic, but she wasn’t the first female film director, before her was Alice Guy Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Delac. What makes Maya different than Ida Lupino or Leni Riefenstahl is that she didn’t conform to any system. She created her own system, working with her then husband, Czech documentary filmmaker Alexander Hammid (who she met through Katherine Dunham), she made her first short silent film in 1943, Meshes of the Afternoon, which she wrote, produced, directed, performed in and edited. (Meshes has been sited as an influence on David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire.)
Maya would go on to write, direct, and edit and appear in most of her short silent films which would go on to influence early music videos particularly Herb Ritts: Madonna’s Cherish (At Land) and Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do Without You (A Study In Choreography for Camera).
Her innovated in camera editing techniques, use of double and triple exposure, camera speeds are still unmatched in modern cinema. She distributed all her own films and promoted them through lectures and screenings in the United States, Canada and Cuba. With Joseph Campbell she helped establish the first non-profit film foundation: The Creative Film Foundation. She recorded two albums of Haitian music and went on to write the definitive anthropological book on Haitian Voudon Divine Horsemen. Her published articles on film theory continue to be relevant.
What made Maya different and still important today is that she kept it real and pushed the envelope of what was possible. In a time of manufactured Rita Hayworths, Maya was all natural, natural hair, natural body, rebelling against the social, economic and political constraints of Hollywood. On her journey to becoming a filmmaker she studied journalism, English literature, poetry and dance and is known for her emphasis on collaboration. Her circle of friends, many of whom appeared in her films, included Anaïs Nin, Gore Vidal, Marcel Duchamp and more.
Her work in defining independent cinema is just as important as her work in the avant-garde, psychodrama and ciné-dance film. It is apropos that at Jonas Mekas’ Film Anthology Archives there is a screening hall named after her and that the American Film Institute used to honor independent filmmakers with their Maya Deren Award.