A Reflection of the Avant-Garde; Martina Kudlacek on “In the Mirror of Maya Deren”
by Michelle Handelman
In 1997 on a visit to America, Austrian filmmaker Martina Kudlacek rang the doorbell of the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Anthology’s director, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, opened the door as he was pulling down a poster from the wall that read, “Anthology is searching for a woman filmmaker who would be willing to spend a few hundred hours — under my supervision — organizing all of Maya Deren’s film materials in our collection. Contact me, Jonas Mekas. PS: No money in it! Only love of cinema!”
“I call this type of event the grace of the encounter,” says Kudlacek. “The subject had finally found me and the innumerable hours I spent at the Anthology gave me the final push to make my own film about Maya.”
“In the Mirror of Maya Deren” (Zeitgeist Films) opened this weekend at the Wexner Center in Ohio, and will open January 24 at The Anthology Film Archive in New York. For those unfamiliar with avant-garde cinema, Maya Deren is without question the most important and innovative pioneer of avant-garde filmmaking in the history of American cinema. Her early films “Meshes of the Afternoon,” “At Land,” and “Ritual in Transfigured Time” are masterpieces and required viewing in the study of experimental film. She treated filmmaking as ritual, developing an oevre that traversed the territories of unconscious dreaming and conscious reality, with an aesthetic deeply influenced by surrealism, psychoanalysis, voodoo and dance. With stunning cinematography by Wolfgang Lehner, seamless editing by Henry Hills, revealing interviews with filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, and Living Theater Founder Judith Malina, “In the Mirror of Maya Deren” reflects what Deren herself describes as “the irrepressible documentaries of the interior”
indieWIRE: The first thing I was struck by in your film was Maya Deren’s voice. It made me realize that in all the years I’ve seen her films I had never heard her speak. It was astounding, almost like her spirit coming from the grave to narrate her own biography. Where did you find these recordings and how did they influence your editing process?
Martina Kudlacek: When I heard Maya’s words for the first time, I felt a deep connection to her emotions and sensibility. It was very important for me in the process of making this film. The recordings are in the Boston University Library’s special collections of Maya Deren. These were wire recordings and Boston University didn’t have a wire recorder, so I had to buy an old wire recorder and get it repaired in New York City. A sound assistant and I transferred the recordings to DAT, so now they are archived for other generations.
iW: It’s notable that Maya Deren received the first Guggenheim grant for experimental film, and that she bought the wire recorder with this grant money to specifically record in Haiti. Did you find many other recordings not related to Haiti in the collection?
Kudlacek: Many of the recordings are the source of “Voices of Haiti,” a record she released with Elektra, but also there are many recorded hours of her lectures and Maya just speaking her ideas. I believe she made them for archival reasons, but also I think she was a very analytical person, and this way she could control and improve her lectures. She never spoke in public without intricate preparation.
iW: You’ve been working for many years in Europe as a filmmaker who crosses documentary and experimental genres. How did this project develop for you?
Kudlacek: Being from Europe I’ve always been aware of avant-garde film history, as well as the tradition of American experimental cinema, so, I was not naively moving into this subject. I knew how important Maya is in the U.S. as a pioneering woman filmmaker, as a theorist, and as a catalyst for independent cinema. I met Alexander Hammid, Maya’s first husband, many years ago through mutual friends in Prague and had made a film on him called “Aimless Walk” based on his film of the same name. You could say my friendship to Alexander Hammid was the main impulse to explore Maya Deren’s life. Through him I met many friends of Maya’s and they would give me little things saying, “Oh, you are so interested in Maya, you should have this postcard she sent me” or a little book or a letter. Over time I felt more and more convinced to build up the courage to climb the monument. All my work comes out of my acquaintance with people who grow very close to my heart. This gives me then the drive to open up other’s eyes to the subject. All of them are in a certain aspect, as well as Maya Deren, invisible artists or invisible people who take us on a journey to the boundaries of our existence as we know it.
iW: I do find that odd that at this point in time, no American foundation has ever funded a film about Deren’s work. One would think it would be a natural. You seemed to have had no problem getting financing through European funds. Did you try to approach any American foundations for money?
Kudlacek: This is a very complex topic, how you find financing for a film. It is no question that because I’m a European filmmaker with a filmography already in place that it was much easier to lift up the project. I also had the advantage that there is a long tradition of avant-garde filmmaking in Austria and foundations to support this subject. First of all Peter Kubelka, who is an important Austrian filmmaker, has lived and taught in U..S and Jonas Mekas, pioneer of new American cinema and director of the Anthology Film Archives, is also eastern European and a friend of Peter’s. Jonas even got married in a part of lower Austria. This awareness of the importance of avant-garde and experimental film in Europe allows you greater options, but with this said, it still takes an enormous effort to pursue and convince people to invest. As you can imagine, not only in Europe, but also in U.S., for many people Maya Deren is completely unknown.
iW: And even for the audience that is aware of Deren’s work, your film covers many aspects of her life that have gone previously undocumented — for instance her richly complicated relationship to the professional dance world.
Kudlacek: In some texts on Maya Deren, she is referred to as a dancer, which in a professional sense is not true. It was very important to her to meet and work as a personal assistant to Katherine Dunham, one of the pioneers of African-American dance in the U.S. Katherine Dunham acknowledged that Maya could have been a dancer. She joined in dance classes as much as she could and she was really sparked by the Haitian and Cuban drummers who led the rehearsals, but she was a secretary or as Katherine Dunham calls her a “Girl Friday.” So she was never a professional dancer, but many thought she was because she moved with a very original rhythm and in her films “Cine-Poems” or “Choreographies for the Camera,” you can see how her whole approach has specific dance qualities.
iW: In the film Katherine Dunham hints to a certain rivalry between herself and Maya. What happened between the two of them?
Kudlacek: Katherine Dunham, herself was a trained anthropologist and in 1936 went to Haiti to study their dance. She shot some film there and begun preparation on a book examining Haiti dance. When Maya went to Haiti in the late forties, Katherine gave her many important contacts and also gave her access to her own research and writings. When Maya’s book “Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti” was published in 1953 her introduction acknowledged many people who were supportive of her work, but Katherine Dunham is never mentioned! I think Katherine was very hurt and felt deceived. It is very odd to me. Maya worked with Dunham dancers throughout in all her later films; the link to the Dunham’s world was always there.
iW: It’s always interesting in a documentary on a single subject to see the scope of community interacting and building a culture together. This film, while being completely specific to Maya Deren’s work, also gives an expansive view of the avant-garde scene in NY just prior to the revolution of the ’60s.
Kudlacek: Yes, one shouldn’t forget that this was a time when you could count on one hand the so-called “avant-garde filmmakers,” not only in New York but also in the whole country. So, it must have been an amazing time in NYC where you could easily meet these people who have the same spirit, the same visions. Now, we have hundreds of experimental filmmakers. I acknowledge Maya for being one of the first to just take the initiative, to rent a theater space and make her personal cinema seen. This was very unique at the time. And because her work was on 16mm is was not only conceptually, but structurally set apart form Hollywood filmmaking. This was the beginning of film as an art form in the U.S.
iW: In the end, what have you come away with after making this film? What are the things about Maya Deren that will continue to influence you?
Kudlacek: I really became aware of how much this tiny woman, as she was always described to me, had an incredibly big heart and a passion for film as an art form. How she was a spokeswoman, an activist, a catalyst for all these creative people. I discovered that she was very strongly aware of being a woman in a male-dominated field and how much she wanted other women to go on and explore the medium from a female perspective. What I also discovered was the way she approached filmmaking as a choreography for the camera, her constant wish to go beyond gravity, beyond boundaries, how she makes dancers float, and therefore makes the soul float. Somehow I think there is always a spirit captured in her films that one can never touch and one can never assume to know…I mean it always stays a mystery.