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She wrote poetry using a movie camera

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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."

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