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Meet the IDA Documentary Award Nominees: Barbara Hammer's 'Maya Deren's Sink'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: Barbara Hammer's Maya Deren's Sink has been nominated in the Best Short category at this years IDA Documentary Awards, to be held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on Friday, December 2. Below is an interview we conducted with Hammer last August in conjunction with her him having been included in DocuWeeks 2011. 

Synopsis: Maya Deren's Sink is an evocative tribute to the mother of avant garde American film, as recounted by those who knew her. Teiji Ito's family, Carolee Schneemann and Judith Malvina float through the homes recalling in tiny bits and pieces words of Deren's architectural and personal interior space. Clips from Deren's films are projected back into the spaces where they were originally filmed, appearing on the floorboard, furniture and in the bowl of her former sink. Fluid light projections of intimate space provide an elusive agency for a filmmaker most of us will never know, as film with its imaginary nature evokes a former time and space.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Barbara Hammer: There was no lesbian cinema to study when I was in film school in the '70s, and so I decided to document my own life. Later I made essay documentaries on invisible histories, looking at who makes history and who is left out. Finally, in Maya Deren's Sink, my 80th-something film, I return full circle to my mentor, the filmmaker who inspired me to make films, Maya Deren.


IDA: What inspired you to make Maya Deren's Sink?

BH: I decided for sure I should be a filmmaker when I saw Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon in a film history class. It was the only film by a woman screened during an entire semester, but I saw a different viewpoint, a new way of making film. I saw a woman's cinema.

Nearly 40 years later I was sitting in the Anthology Film Archive lobby when I hear that the sink that used to be in Maya Deren's home was picked up for the archive. I couldn't wait to see the sink, and as soon as I saw it I wanted to project an image of Maya Deren in it, and then back in her homes in both New York City and Los Angeles. Perhaps I could bring her to life again in some new way and pay tribute to my mentor.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

BH: The biggest challenge was finding the people who knew Deren and who would give me an interview. There is always detective work with documentary filmmaking, and when you choose as your subject a major figure who is well known and who already is an established historic figure, people are protective and often not forthcoming. That just meant I had to look further afield.

I feel especially indebted to Tavia Ito, the daughter of Teiji Ito (composer and Deren's second husband) and Gail Ito (Teiji's second wife after Deren), who told me wonderful stories and who brought Deren to life with details about her daily life. When Tavia played her flute I couldn't help but hear refrains from her father, who composed the soundtrack for Meshes of the Afternoon.


IDA:  How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

BH: My vision radically changed twice. I realized that projections of Deren's films on the walls, ceilings and floors of her homes were not enough to bring back her presence. I needed an actor. By chance, at a party, I met a young woman who looked like Maya Deren and loved her work. Deren also was a theoretician of film, and with the actor Bekka Lindstrom I could populate her former homes with Deren's words. I needed a sense of a presence, of Maya Deren, not a person playing her, so with the help of the wonderful editor, Stephanie Testa, we were able to abstract the actor. 

Secondly, I wanted to avoid the static depiction of the "talking head" documentary.  The creative breakthrough came when I thought, If the walls of Maya Deren's homes could talk, the people who knew her could speak as memories from the past. I positioned these voices within picture frames that hung from the walls, and overlaid the lips or faces with an aged parchment paper. Voila! 


IDA:  As you've screened Maya Deren's Sink--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

BH: Audience members who know Maya Deren's films are thrilled with this intimate portrait. Those who haven't yet seen her work are motivated to seek them out.  I was delighted when Maya Deren's Sink won the Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the 2010 Berlinale.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

BH: Trin T. Minh-ha, Agnès Varda, Ziga Vertov and Chris Marker have all made milestone films that have illuminated my path as a documentary filmmaker.

Want to learn more about the 2011 IDA Documentary Awards? Visit the Awards page for a full list of nominees, honorary award winners, and more.

Buy tickets to this year's Awards ceremony and fundraising event.