The experimental filmmaker Maya Deren spent significant periods of time in Haiti between 1947 and 1951. The footage she made of Voodoo rituals and rites was left unedited on her death and only assembled later as the film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti 1947–51. The commentary, composed of extracts from the book of the same title Deren published in 1953, was also added posthumously.
Conceived of as a ‘film-poem’, Deren’s film reveals the ongoing merging of art and ethnography which was one of the legacies of Surrealism. Nevertheless, it also stands as an important cultural record of Haitian Voodoo – a religion based upon West African beliefs and practices, combined with aspects of Roman Catholicism.
Deren’s intention was to use montage editing techniques in order to contrast Haitian dance with ‘non- Haitian elements’ in a series of dream-like sequences – an approach which testifies to her Surrealist interest in alternative realities. As the project progressed the focus of her interest shifted from dance to the complex nature of Haitian ceremonies. Thus the film celebrates Haiti for its hybrid culture as well as for its symbolic importance as the site a successful slave revolution in 1791–1804, which resulted in Haiti becoming the first modern black republic.