takaisin sisällysluetteloonIlona Hongisto – Wider Screen 2/2004




Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen – The Living Gods of Haiti and the rupture of ethnographic documentary film


Maya Deren - © Zeitgeist FilmsMaya Deren (1917- 1961) is known for her contributions to the American avantgarde of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Stan Brakhage called her "the mother of us all" and her work has often been regarded as an initiation to American experimental film. However, Deren’s importance in the field of cinema studies has often been underestimated, even though she is one of the few filmmakers who aimed at combining practice and theory. In this article, I will bring together Deren’s film theory, the practice of ethnographic documentary filmmaking and the concept of documentary film. My point of reference is Deren’s Haitian project, which is often considered as the downside of her career. My intention is to prove the contrary.

Of the 20 000 feet of film shot by Maya Deren in Haiti between 1947 and 1955 about fifty minutes were culled and edited between 1973 and 1977 by the filmmaker’s last husband Teiji Ito, assisted by his second wife Cherel Ito. The documentary film was named Divine Horsemen – The Living Gods of Haiti after an ethnographical survey Deren had written on Haitian Voudoun rituals in 1953. Deren’s extensive documentation of Haitian ceremonies also includes about one thousand stills and fifty hours of audio recordings. (Jackson 2002, pp. 38 and 131–166, Sullivan 2001, pp. 212–215 and Sudre 1996, pp. 373–374) Deren’s project in Haiti was never completed since she had not worked through the footage before her untimely death in 1961. The film that is now in circulation does not stand for Deren’s own initial idea nor does it fully advocate the views she defended in her film theory. However, the process of filmmaking that Deren went through in Haiti is a valuable point of departure for an analysis of the relationship between artistic aspirations, ethnographic documentary and the film medium.

My aim is to discuss the possibility and boundaries of embodied knowledge in the light of Maya Deren’s film theory and her Haitian project. I approach the existing film as source material in how it shows the methods Deren used in filmmaking. Since Deren did not edit the images nor the soundtrack herself, I will not treat the film in all its aesthetic details. Furthermore, I am not interested in analyzing the film as a closed textual entity. Moreover, my aim is to explore what kinds of limitations, transgressions and insistences her choices consist of. In her film theory, Deren defines editing as the creative cinematic means per se. For her, editing assures the illusion that gives cinema its unique quality. Therefore, not dealing with editing imposes some theoretical open ends to my analysis. However, since my main interest is not in dealing with the aesthetic details of the film in question, I do not see this as a hindrance to my interpretation. (On Deren’s views on editing, see Deren 1946, pp. 39, 46 and Deren 1947, pp. 612–620)

I will analyze Deren’s film theory and Divine Horsemen in the context of ethnographic documentary film and develop my analysis in relation to the concept of embodied knowledge. I intend to discuss how Deren defines the possibilities and preconditions of retaining knowledge via the film medium and how her views relate to the boundaries of ethnographic documentary.


Ethnographic experience

Initially, Deren left for Haiti to film ritual dances. She had in mind a cross-cultural collage film that would include Haitian and Balinese ritual dances and Western children’s games. They were to be linked through montage into a new formalist cinematic expression. Deren had already explored cinematic formalism in her experimental films of the forties. The style of her four first experimental films combines elements of the French avant-garde of the 1920’s with some features of modernist painting. (see Hongisto 2003 and Jackson 2002) When Deren departed for Haiti in 1947 she did not have strictly ethnographic nor documentary purposes. (Sudre 1996, pp. 374–375) She went to Haiti as an artist preoccupied with a new approach to cinematic formalism, an approach that would take the ideas developed in her previous films even further. What then happened when she started her project in Haitian surroundings was an important reversal of her film project in terms of methods as well as subject matter.

The existing film is a rather traditional ethnographic account, marked by the inclination to represent a foreign culture realistically, objectively and accurately. Representation is here linked with explanation. The soundtrack constantly explains the images and provides the spectator a framework in which to interpret the images. The soundtrack imposes a veil of reason on the images. Divine Horsemen could thus be placed in the category of "the light of reason". Anna Grimshaw defines this category that according to her periodization was blooming during the interwar years as follows: "emphasis upon order, integration, rationalism, and knowledge." (Grimshaw 2003, p. 58) However, as I will show later, keeping in mind Deren’s project as a whole and the particular quality of the visual material that she shot in Haiti the enlightenment project qualities of the film have to be questioned. Grimshaw places for example John Grierson’s work in the category of enlightenment and emphasizes the presence of Cartesian dualism in his films. Knowledge in these films is attained through the exercise of reason, which is made possible with the help of an all-seeing camera. Grimshaw defines the ethnography of these films as holistic in nature. The camera gazes around in a disembodied, impersonal fashion, creating a distance between the subject and object of filming. (Grimshaw 2003, pp. 58, 62 and 66- 67) The authenticity of the subject matter is conveyed by means that are commonly understood as enhancements of objectivity and accuracy. The presence of the perceiver/ the filmmaker is faded behind an appearance of legitimate interpretation. (For an analysis on ethnographic documentary and the problematics of representation, see Nichols 1994, pp. 63- 91. The question of authenticity is treated, for example, in Nichols 1993, pp. 174- 191)

Divine Horsemen makes use of an omniscient narrator who creates a framework to the interpretation of the images. Also, the editing of the film functions on a narrative basis providing logical deductions that promise accurate knowledge. The subject matter of the film is represented in a more-or-less coherent manner – in which one action leads to another – that bears in itself the implication of accuracy. In her own account, Deren follows a similar definition: "I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity, I end by recording, as humbly as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and so abandon my manipulations." (Deren 1953, p. 6) It appears that Deren places documentary film in a discourse that takes the relationship a documentary film has to the real as non-problematic. In her film theory, which was mostly written before her trips to Haiti, the relationship that reality has to the film medium is all but non-problematic. In terms of ethnographic documentary film, Deren’s comment reduces the object of filming to a distant other – something that is stable, integrate and recordable.

It is possible to question the status of the object of filming as a distant other and thus reconsider the basis of ethnographic documentary film in the framework of embodied knowledge. To start with, embodied knowledge can be understood as a primitive way of knowing. In another words, in primitive cultures knowledge is often attained via corporeal rituals. The corporeal performing of rituals is a way of defining and understanding one’s place in the universe. Rituals are then active processes of knowledge. Similarly, filmmaking can be understood as a process of generating and embodying knowledge. Deren states that in primitive societies art is fundamentally an art of knowledge, for it comprehends and realizes a whole system of ideas within its form. (Deren 1946, p. 15)

Ethnographic documentaries have traditionally taken the articulation of knowledge as a clear-cut one-way system, in which what is captured on film is treated as objective knowledge. What troubles Deren is the requirement of unbiased observation that ties down the emotional freedom of the artist. This also prevents full access to the means and techniques of the cinematic form. (Deren 1946, p. 33) In her diary notes from Haiti, Deren places experience before analysis. That is, she foregrounds her artistic sensibilities as opposed to rationalizing the Haitian religion when recording its features. (Jackson 2002, p. 148- 149) She implicitly opens up her film theory to the question of embodied knowledge and its relation to the film medium. The concept of embodied knowledge puts to the fore how knowledge is processed in relation to the cinematic medium. What becomes essential is the co-operation of several parties in the creation of knowledge. Knowledge is not extracted from a sealed reality, but tacitly formed in the encounter of the filmmaker, the object of filming, the film medium and, eventually, the spectator. (See MacDougall 1998, pp. 29–30 and 53)


Deren’s film theory and its key concepts

In her film theory – especially in the arguments put forward in An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946) – Deren oscillates between an aesthetic perspective influenced by Gestalt psychology and a relativist world view influenced by the theory of relativity. She moves back and forth on the terrain of meditation and reason. Her views correlate with the modernist discourse on the relationship between magic and science – the sacred and the profane – which was reflected in various domains of art and culture at the same time.

Maya Deren - © Zeitgeist FilmsIn the center of Deren’s film theory lays the twofold concept of controlled accident. It is based on the technological debt that cinematography bears to photography. Controlled accident, then, refers to a situation in which parts of reality (in this case natural phenomena – I will not go into the concept of reality in this article) are automatically incorporated into cinematic entities in the process of filming. She argues: "only in photography – by the delicate manipulation which I call the controlled accident – can natural phenomena be incorporated into our own creativity, to yield an image where reality of a tree confers its truth upon the events we cause to transpire beneath it." (Deren 1960, p. 66) The actual use of an artistic medium negotiates a truth-value that is not in declination with the truth-value of the filmed object itself. Moreover, the truth-value negotiated in the encounter of the object of filming, the filmmaker and the medium is qualitatively something more than the initial truth-value. Following Deren’s argument, it becomes clear that what she is suggesting is an artistic medium that actually creates truth-values. Indeed, she states that the two ways a movie camera renders things visible are discovery and invention. (Deren 1960, p. 64 and Deren 1946, p. 46)

The referential relationship of what is filmed and its imprint on film is indexical. Deren acknowledges a certain material relationship between the film medium and what is being shot. At the same time – however – she stresses the illusionist capacities that make cinema a unique form of art. Thus, Deren’s theory is bound by the idea of material indexicality that ensures a certain truth-value and the idea of illusion that provides cinema its extraordinary powers to create new dimensions. The major flaw of documentary filmmaking, following Deren’s thinking, is the over-emphasizing of the first and the ignoring of the latter.

Before embarking to Haiti, Deren had always insisted on the control of the filmmaker over what is being filmed and how. Her film theory follows up on a modernist line that ensures the artist the position of an all-knowing God-like figure, much like in Clement Greenberg’s theories on the modern painter. Deren’s dogmatic formalism left no room for improvisation in her experimental films, but when in Haiti, she found herself amid a situation, in which she no longer had total control over what was being shot. She had to capture what was given to her and the methods were to be improvised on the way. (Deren 1946, p. 20 and 32) Deren’s Haitian project presents itself partially as a contradiction to her film theory and at the same time it evokes possible redefinitions not only of her own arguments but also of (ethnographic) documentary film.


Documentary truth and Haitian ruptures

In the context of this article, the essential question is in what kind of a framework does documentary film generate truth and what are the preconditions for this process. In this context, I define the terms truth and knowledge in their relationship to one another. In another words, I take truth to be the aim of all knowledge. Thus, the knowledge that a film articulates is in relation to what kind of a truth is revealed. And further on, the film medium generates certain kinds of truths since its knowledge capacities are bound to the medium itself.

Ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch uses the concept of cinéma-vérité to define his approach, in which truth is not something to be affirmed by a certain medium. Film is a process that does not intend to reveal an underlying all-encompassing truth. Rouch’s collaborator Edgar Morin states in an article, which he wrote in collaboration with Rouch, that when making their film A Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, 1961) they realized that making cinéma-vérité is not going from a basis of truth towards an even greater truth. For them, cinema reveals and deals with the problem of truth. (Morin 1960, pp. 262–263)

Knowledge can then be defined as a process that collides with the process of artistic creation. The encounter between the artist, artistic medium and the object of filming constructs a contingent truth element that is essentially related to the material relationship of the three parties. A work of art thus presents a partial truth and does not attempt to represent a truth that existed before its own existence. Thus, the knowledge articulated in a documentary film is negotiated in the encounter of the three parties. In ethnographic terms, knowledge is not a result of reflection based on experience. Knowledge has to include experience. Knowledge is thus not an object, but a relational factor in the sum that does not exclude experience. In David MacDougall’s terms, film is a kind of performative anthropology. The process of filmmaking necessarily includes the experiences of the different parties, which makes ethnographic film an embodied analysis of the world. (MacDougall 1998, pp. 79–81 and 90)

Documentaries cannot, then, be dealt with as translations of a truth. They need to be considered as truth-inventing works that get their truth-value via the process of filmmaking. In the process, knowledge is embodied on film. Embodied knowledge can be seen in juxtaposition to localized knowledge, the latter being more conclusive in nature and framed to a certain time, space and performer. Embodied knowledge is more inclined towards an exploratory process of knowledge. (Nichols 1994, pp. 2 and 68–70) These particular terms seem to present a certain conceptual indistinctness though. Localized knowledge in its literary signification actually implies toward the same end as embodied knowledge. Localized can be understood as ephemeral knowledge that exists only in certain conditions. Knowledge is localized to certain performers and variants. To separate embodied knowledge from localized knowledge, the concepts of process and experience have to be emphasized. When it comes to localized knowledge, it is as if knowledge had been sealed with several variants bounding up the package. Outsiders could then observe the package of knowledge and make their own deductions. Embodied knowledge is, on the contrary, never bound up but in a constant state of fluctuation. The variants/performers reframe and mould the conditions for knowledge thus making it a process that is in the state of becoming as opposed to being. What is noteworthy is how Deren defines film as a time-form that involves movement and changes over time. Renata Jackson points out how the idea of "composition over time" links Deren’s ideas to Henri Bergson’s philosophy of "becoming". (Jackson 2002, p. 172)

Traditionally, ethnographic documentaries have functioned via an arrangement of binary oppositions. Knowledge is articulated by creating a hegemonic distance between the subject and the object of filming. The difference between the two is qualitative in how the filmmaker-subject assumes an omniscient position toward the object. In feminist criticism, the concept of embodied knowledge has been used to oppose and question patriarchal/omniscient knowledge. Since ethnographic documentary film first saw light during Western imperialist quests for foreign parts of the world, it is preconditioned by the same traditional (patriarchal) knowledge framework as imperialist ideology. Embodied knowledge must thus be understood in political terms as well.

Binary oppositions have also been questioned from the point of view of the spectator. Laura U. Marks uses the term embodied contemplation to define the encounter of a spectator and a work of art. She sees the encounter as a truth-generating process, for it relies on the material connection between the parties. Her argument is based on the idea of haptic visuality that underlines the simultaneous material presence of the work of art and the spectator that in so doing creates cultural memory. The qualitative subject-object distinction disappears in the merger of the two bodies. For Marks, embodied contemplation is based on a creation of a communicative space that is first and foremost material in nature. (Marks 2000, pp. 151, 162–163, 166, 188 and 190) It is interesting to note, that David MacDougall speaks of the film’s subject as shared space in which film, filmmaker, subject (of narration) and the spectator interact. (MacDougall 1998, pp. 29–30)

Maya Deren seems to linger between the two poles. In her comment on documentary films quoted above, she clearly speaks in a traditional ethnographer’s voice and thus places the filmmaker in the context of an omniscient observer. What becomes central in Deren’s case is the status of the artist-subject. Her statements on the role of the filmmaker as an inventor put the emphasis on the other end of the spectrum. Before Haiti Deren distinguished between a filmmaker artist and a documentary filmmaker, but her Haitian practices prove the contrary. It may be that when she reached Haiti and was out of her own cultural framework, she concluded that her Western modernist rationalist deciphering could not lead to the truth of the Haitians. This would have forced her to reconsider her views on documentary filmmaking as well. The diary notes quoted by Renata Jackson (see above) emphasize her understanding of the impossibility of reaching a stable and objective truth via traditional documentary means.

One could argue that ethnographic documentaries are a conceptual paradox, since cinema (nor any other media for that matter) is not a medium of translation, but of creation. Already the transgression of cultural boundaries demands for a redefinition of the kind of knowledge a documentary film can retain. Conclusive – localized – knowledge does not seem to be possible in intercultural circumstances. If truth and knowledge are formed in the process of filmmaking, the epistemological status of documentary film is shifted quite drastically from its position as an objective representator of factual information to a creator of truth.


Cinema, technology, truth

Deren speaks in favor of a holistic worldview in which parts are in contact with each other following a certain logic, like in Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Deren 1946, p. 12 and Sullivan 2001, p. 208) She also insists on the depersonalization of individuals within a cinematic work, which consequently led her to speak of her films as ritualistic. She does not believe in attaining knowledge and truth via localized individuals (the experience of individuals). Instead, she is interested in discovering a larger, collective logic. (Deren 1946, p. 20) She vouches for a knowledge system that is relativist in principle and presents itself through creative manifestations of collective experience. If cinema is understood as a creative manifestation of collective experience, it is not far in definition from embodied contemplation – or shared space of contemplation. The difference lies in the perspectives that individual experiences are given in the process of creating knowledge. Deren seems to advocate an organic view in which all parts share a common ground, whereas Laura U. Marks in particular stresses the difference of experiences that can merge into a unified entity. Deren speaks of similarity, Marks speaks of difference in similarity.

Embodied knowledge defined in Deren’s terms would then take into consideration the collective experience of a culture, its internal logic, how parts merge into a whole and how a documentary film consists of an awareness of these factors, the subjectivity of the artist-filmmaker and the film medium. The blunt recording of reality is not a film form. Film is an act of creation, in which the capacities of the medium are explored to the full. In a properly cinematic documentary film, in which artistic creation and scientific observation merge, the traditional value – "the objective, impartial rendition of an otherwise obscure or remote reality" (Deren 1946, p. 33-35) – of documentary film is actually challenged and the impossibility of such a film form is pointed out. In another words, documentary films are always related to creation, which refers to a constant revision and reorganization of the material at hand. In terms of Deren’s ethnographic documentary film, the necessity to render visible the underlying cosmic order of the Voudoun requires more than the simple recording of the Voudoun rituals.

The images of Divine Horsemen concentrate on gestures, on parts of larger choreographical movements and on the relationships between these parts. The camera constantly constructs a logic of movement, in which the performers are related to one another by simple reframings. The movements of the bodies performing the rituals are often framed in medium close-ups as if to avoid a distant and totalizing perspective. Artistic creation and traditional objective ethnographic documentary film form seem to be in contradiction. Deren’s method of filming is an antithesis to scientific objectivism. She does not follow the dualist methodology of traditional ethnography. Instead, she was assured by a participatory approach in which the ethnographer is inside the processes of the culture in order to experience and understand them. (Deren 1953, p. 11 and Sullivan 2001, p. 215) She places the artist and the scientist on the same level – they both discover and invent – and in so doing she simultaneously defines science in a way that does not support the traditional point of departure of ethnographic documentary film. Objectivity is not distance, but creative participation. The process of filmmaking is manipulation of existing knowledge in the creation of new knowledge. (Deren 1946: 39–40)

In the Haitian footage, there are several instants of slow motion cinematography that Deren saw especially useful for the filming of rituals. Deren – along the lines with Jean Epstein – saw slow motion as a particularly cinematographic expression, a microscope of time. (Deren 1946, p. 47) Slow motion is here a prime example of an instance of embodied knowledge. The Voudoun ritual is re-created in the encounter between the ritual, the artist and the medium. Images in slow motion invent something essential about the whole of the ritual, and what is left on film, is a significant instant – an instant of embodied knowledge. Cinematic time is not in an analogical relationship to "real time". It is a cinematic means of evoking the intensity of embodied experience.

This means, then, that Deren’s ethnography is essentially nonfactual. In terms of documentary film, Trinh T. Minh-ha defines the nonfactual as "any explicit use of the magic, poetic, or irrational qualities specific to the film medium ---." (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1993, p. 98) Deren’s creative manipulation makes the production means visible and is thus nonfactual. The presence of a technological medium makes Trinh T. Minh-ha speak of cinema as a technology of truth. The film medium itself is forever present, and consequently, truth cannot be reduced to a single objective absolute. Knowledge is embedded in and truth is created in artistic expression – be it realist or surrealist in style. Truth and knowledge are attained in an embodied encounter in which objective reality is replaced by an embodied experience.



Scientific observation in terms of traditional ethnographic documentary film implies toward a representational system that reconstitutes Western hegemony over primitive cultures. In this perspective, film art as a representational system is in contradiction with ethnography, since it creates knowledge in a process that overrides hegemonic power structures. Deren’s definition of scientific observation differs from that of traditional ethnography’s objective scientific observation. Also, the strategies of ethnographic documentary film are visually contradicted in Divine Horsemen. The film makes use of artistic methods that question the possibility of objective knowledge. The existing film can be seen as a part of ethnography’s hegemonic master-narrative, but when key elements of the visual material are taken out of the context they were put in and analyzed in relation to Deren’s theory of film and the process of filmmaking, the interpretation can be the opposite. The experimental images are in opposition to the "pure" tradition of ethnographic documentary.

It can be argued that the artist in Deren did not fully adapt to the role of a scientific observer and consequently her Haitian project puts on display some key issues on the nature of ethnographic documentary, its relation to artistic practices and Deren’s own theory of film. It is interesting to note that Deren’s project brings out theoretical debates that have resisted in the field of ethnographic documentary film until the 1990’s. It is only recently – with some individual exceptions to the rule – that ethnographic documentary has given voice to alternative visions that consciously deal with the hegemonic relations of authority that ethnographic documentary bears in itself. (On new ethnographic documentaries, see Lutkehaus et al 1999, pp. 116–139)

© Zeitgeist Films

To conclude, I propose a definition of embodied knowledge that at the same time rejects Western ocular centric hegemony and provides a definition of the creative faculties of cinematic expression. In this definition, the (material and mimetic) indexical relationship that a cinematic image has to the world is defined as synesthetic. This means that a cinematic work operates also on other senses than vision. (Marks 2000, pp. 142-143, 203, 212-216 and 221-223) This calls back to Sergei Eisenstein’s definition of cinema as a synchronization of the senses. (Eisenstein 1986, pp. 60–91) Consequently, it is possible to redefine ethnographic documentary film against the Western epistemology based on vision. In this case, the we/them dichotomy of ethnographic documentaries and the disembodied truths they generate can be replaced with an epistemology that places the body in all its sensory capacities in the center – like in corporeal rituals of primitive cultures. The object-subject division is actually dimmed and replaced by an embodied experience.

Maya Deren’s Haitian project is an apt ground for rethinking the possibilities and boundaries of ethnographic documentary film. The concepts she develops in her film theory, her practical filmmaking methods and stylistic choices are a package that opens up many questions that have still not been answered. The Haitian project also provides new insights to Deren’s theoretical thinking that has often been considered essentialist and totalizing in nature. (see Sullivan 1997, Jackson 2002 and Hongisto 2003) Ethnography and experimentality do not seem to be a great match in the conventional understanding of documentary film – some individual filmmakers put aside – but lately the issues of interculturality, experience and embodiment have changed the understanding of ethnographic documentary film and its boundaries and preconditions. The change has been in the air for about fifty years, from Maya Deren’s days to ours, but it is only recently that ethnographic documentary film has been reconsidered, reframed and redefined.

text: © Ilona Hongisto
pictures: © Zeitgeist Films

takaisin sisällysluetteloon


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