She wrote poetry using a movie camera
In the movie world, Maya Deren is the equivalent of a legendary poet who's blazed new trails in language while remaining unknown to readers who stick to the safety of bestseller lists.
It isn't likely she'll ever be a household name, but savvy moviegoers speak of her with reverence. Their numbers may grow with this week's release of "In the Mirror of Maya Deren," a smart and moving documentary about her life and work.
Born in Ukraine in 1917 and brought to New York at age 5, Deren studied journalism and literature before going to work with Katherine Dunham, the African-American dance pioneer.
While in her mid-20s she bought a second-hand movie camera and found her true vocation - as a poet who used imagery and movement to express ideas and emotions she couldn't capture in words alone.
Her groundbreaking 1943 film "Meshes of the Afternoon," made with her husband Alexander Hammid, launched her career while providing inspiration for generations of cine-poets in decades to come.
She completed only six movies before her untimely death in 1961, and the longest of them lasts only 15 minutes. But they have cemented her reputation as a key figure in 20th-century film - and one of the very few women to enter the pantheon of major screen artists.
Although she built her career before the beginnings of the feminist movement, Deren was keenly aware of herself as an artist with a distinctly feminine sensibility.
"I think [my films] are the films of a woman," she remarked in a talk excerpted in the documentary. "The strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a 'now' creature. A woman has strength to wait [because] time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness."
In her films, she continued, "one image is always becoming another. It is what is happening that is important in my films, not what is at any moment. This is a woman's time sense, and I think it happens more in my films than in almost anyone else's."
The title, "In the Mirror of Maya Deren," is apt, given Deren's fascination with reflections, resemblances, and film's ability to both echo and transform the world.
Works such as "Meshes of the Afternoon" and "Ritual in Transfigured Time" explore personal and social relationships through dream-like images. Others, such as "The Very Eye of Night" and "Meditation on Violence," pair camera work with dance and music to evoke mythical dimensions.
Among her many achievements, Deren was the first filmmaker to win a Guggenheim fellowship, and the first woman and the first American to win the Grand Prix International for experimental cinema at the Cannes film festival.
Since her death, the American Film Institute has named an award after her, a 2003 edition of the respected Utne Reader has named her one of 40 past artists "who still matter," and her collected works have been released on DVD and videocassette, including excerpts from an hours-long film on Haitian magic and religion that she never lived to complete.
Deren's friends and collaborators were a cultural who's who, including surrealists Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, anthropologist Margaret Mead, filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, choreographer Anthony Tudor, and folklorist Joseph Campbell.
Her films and writings make up a body of work to rival many of theirs, and her influence remains powerful among young independent-minded artists.
"In the Mirror of Maya Deren," creatively written and directed by Martina Kudlacek, is an eloquent memorial to her unique accomplishments - and an excellent introduction for those who have yet to discover them.
• Not rated; contains no objectionable material.