Patricia Fiese-Mahnkopp: Transcending Reality – Perceiving the Holy?

A phenomenological analysis and reflection of Maya Deren’s documentary »Divine Horsemen«


Maya Deren’s enigmatic filmic work - prototypical »Meshes of the Afternoon« (1943) - is being considered as a milestone in modern experimental film. The same applies for her synesthetic experiments about film and dance exploring the perception of (sur)reality - prototypical »A Study in Choreography for the Camera« (1945) - as well as her poetological reflections, »An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film« (1946). But even if the meaning of Deren’s early and middle work as well as her meaning as a modern film theorist have been explored very well (Nichols 2001), the meaning of her late work – especially Divine Horsemen: »The Living Gods of Haiti«, a documentary, which was shot by Deren between 1947 and 1954, reconstructed and released post mortem 1985 by Teiji and Cherel Ito – and her reflections of it (Deren 1953) has not been explored sufficiently yet.

In my paper, I will therefore focus on the implications of Deren’s documentary work by arguing that it enables a perception, which transcends reality by offering an experience which may be described as religious in William James’ (1902) or Rudolf Otto’s terms (1924). Based upon a close phenomenological reading of «Divine Horsemen«, supplemented by Deren’s own reflections on it, I will finally ask, under which conditions (documentary) film may evoke the perception of the Holy.