Brain Pickings

A Rare Look at Haiti: Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen

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Breathtaking beauty, voodoo violence, and what the Guggenheim has to do with ritual sacrifices.

Filmmaker Maya Deren is one of the most influential women in art history. Though most famous for her seminal avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren went on to produce a prolific and diverse body of work. In 1946, much thanks to her critical acclaim for Meshes, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, which she used to travel to Haiti and film Meditation on Violence — a controversial piece on the rituals of vodoun, which she not only filmed but also participated in, ultimately disregarding the terms of her Guggenheim Fellowship.

After Deren’s death in 1961, footage from the 18,000 rituals she filmed was incorporated in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti — a fascinating posthumous documentary completed in 1985 by Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito, and his then-wife, Cherel Winett Ito. The film, which explores the tension between beauty and violence in the dancing at the center of vodoun rituals, is now available for free on YouTube, though in poor quality, and we’ve gathered here all six parts. (Though to do Deren’s work justice, we highly recommend the DVD.)

The mesmerizing film is based on Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, the book Deren published in 1953 — an absolute cultural treasure we highly recommend. It offers a glimpse of a complex and largely misunderstood culture, even more so after being dragged across the global newsscape in light of the recent tragedy.

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