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Underground Film History: AFI’s Maya Deren Award

Classic image of filmmaker Maya Deren staring out a window

I just found out the other day that the American Film Institute (AFI) used to give out an annual Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award to celebrate achievements in underground and non-commercial independent filmmaking.

Information about this award is difficult to come by, so I thought I’d post up all of the recipients in one easy to browse list on the Underground Film Journal. While I’m sure AFI has kept records of the award — and hopefully have video somewhere of the recipients accepting it, if there were indeed award ceremonies — none of that is currently live on their website.

I compiled the list of winners, which is posted below, from records on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). I’m just going under the assumption that the IMDB info is indeed correct. However, I believe it is as I did happen to find some corroboration on some of the awards by running a general Google search on the Maya Deren award. This info is also kind of scattered on IMDB, so that’s why I thought this compiling would be helpful for any fellow underground film scholars.

The award was given out for 11 years, from 1986 to 1996. Each year, between two and four filmmakers were honored, mostly individually, but some filmmaking teams received the award together.

It’s quite an impressive list of filmmakers, too! Many underground film legends were honored, from Stan Brakhage the first year to Kenneth Anger the last. There are lots of other familiar underground names, like Chick Strand, Ken Jacobs, Bruce Baillie, Shirley Clarke, George Kuchar (but not Mike, apparently) and more.

There are also several indie filmmakers on the list, such as Barbara Kopple, Marlon Riggs and Charles Burnett. Plus, there are several names I’m personally unfamiliar with, but am now suitably intrigued to find more about them. And, several video artists, such as Nam June Paik, were also recipients of the award. As you can see, it is a pretty diverse list.

Without further ado, here it is, in reverse chronological order:

1996
Kenneth Anger
Chick Strand
Leslie Thornton

1995
Shigeko Kubota
Richard Leacock
Victor Masayesva

1994
Ken Jacobs
Barbara Kopple
Julie Zando

1993
Julie Dash
Pat O’Neill
Bruce Yonemoto; Norman Yonemoto

1992
George Kuchar
Marlon Riggs
Woody Vasulka; Steina Vasulka

1991
Bruce Baillie
Charles Burnett
T. Minh-ha Trinh

1990
Les Blank
Ernie Gehr
Edin Velez

1989
James Broughton
Shirley Clarke
Joan Jonas

1988
Bruce Conner
Yvonne Rainer
Bill Viola

1987
Dara Birnbaum
Robert Breer
Ed Emshwiller

1986
Stan Brakhage
Sally Cruikshank
Nam June Paik


Underground Film Feedback (3 comments)

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  • Timothy says:

    Mike Kuchar was indeed honored, as per documentation in George’s diary video “Award” from 1992.

    It is available for screening at Video Data Bank in Chicago.

  • Leslie Thornton says:

    I also received the award in 1996. There was an awards ceremony at Anthology Film Archives, and then a very nice dinner at a private home. The award includes a $5000 honorarium. I should think you could get more information about the history by contacting AFI. Also, the award is entitled The Maya Deren Award for Lifetime Achievement. I was surprised to get it when I did, as I hadn’t lived a lifetime at that point. But I considered it a great honor.

    LT

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