Experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to voice the exiles

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Jonas Mekas, photographed by Antanas Sutkas in Semenikia, Lithuania, 1971.
Jonas Mekas, photographed by Antanas Sutkas in Semenikia, Lithuania, 1971.Antanas Sutkas / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Jonas Mekas (1922-2019) would have turned 100 in 2022. If there was anyone who gave voice to and inspired the displaced, it was poets, filmmakers, archivists, curators and film critics whose work revolved around loss, memory and nostalgia. , His legacy lives on more than ever now that three million Ukrainians take refuge in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.

“Freedom is not just an idea. This is a very physical thing. Our body needs it, feels it and lives it,” Mekas wrote in an article published on 29 March 1990 new York Times, “Only when there is full and complete respect for the individual and national liberties of each country (and every culture), can the world be considered a civilized place.”

Jonas Mekas, who has died at the age of 96, left his native Lithuania at the age of 22, fleeing World War II. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Hamburg, where he stayed for eight months, and spent years in camps for the displaced. He arrived in New York in 1949 as an exile. “There was a time when I forgot my home,” he recounts in one of his visual diaries, walden (1969), thus summarizes the constant agitation that became his life.

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His ability to rise above tragedy and re-establish himself in moments of extreme vulnerability was admirable. Upon arrival in New York, he borrowed money to buy his first video camera, a 16 mm Bolex, with which he would record his first films. He went down in history as the founder of American avant-garde cinema, shooting 93 films and videos and founding the film library of film directors we know today. anthology film archivesOne of the world’s most important reserves for the preservation of experimental and avant-garde cinema.

To celebrate his birth centenary, New York, the city where he lived for 70 years, pays tribute to him at the Jewish Museum exhibition camera was always on (the camera was always recording), which would be in force till June. “Jonas was inspiring. They were energetic, curious, creative. He was always in motion. At the age of 93, he came by subway to the first exhibition we organized”, recalls exhibition curator Kelly Texter. “He was a very generous person and the doors of his house were always open. He grew up on a farm where everything was shared, and this made him believe in the power of cooperation. His home was not a geographical location, but a community of artists who eschew ideals. He worked not only with other refugees, but also with people from minority ethnicities, people from the LGBT community or people suffering from any mental illness.

Accompanying the exhibition and with the same name is a catalog co-edited by Texter with Inessa Pavlovskite and Lukas Brassis, who spent four years researching Mekas’ personal archives. “It was necessary to record his legacy,” explains Brassis.

The exhibition is a unique experience in the artist’s world, where his 11 fragmented visual diaries are presented sequentially through 12 screens. It’s an indication of how the filmmaker structured his pieces. It is also a poetic scene. When one roll is over, that screen goes black, until eventually all of the screen goes black. “Wherever you look, you can tell that the cameraman is in love with the person on screen. Mekas’ films can often be confusing and difficult to follow, but the affection that can be felt in each and every person he films is admirable,” says John Leland, a reporter new York Timeswho met Mekas during the last years of his life.

is among the estimated fragments Memories of a trip to Lithuania (1972), considered by many of his masterpieces. It describes his return to his land and reunion with his mother after 25 years of leaving. “The world is full of displaced people on all continents. The world is full of us.” On one screen we see black-and-white scenes from Mekas’s life when he arrives in New York. Meeting with other refugees, walking alone. On another screen, in color, life in Semeniskiai, the city where he grew up. Families and neighbors gathered outside to sing and dance. Fields and animals. “I am still on the journey, towards my home. We loved you, world, but you did terrible things to us, ”says the voice. Close,

Jonas was a reference director for many filmmakers including Mekas Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch, but above all he was a poet. And it is for his poetry and his books that he is remembered in Lithuania. This explains why the essence of his films has always fluctuated between the quest for brightness and the deepest sadness. states like this lost, lost, lost (1976) His First Days in America: “Those were very long and lonely nights in which I devoted myself to walking through Manhattan. I don’t think I’ve ever been so lonely.” and carry on. “I will never forget Christmas Day. We could not stay at home because we felt very lonely. We drank cold beer. The wind was blowing pieces of newspaper down one of those streets in Brooklyn at the End of the World. It is very difficult to imitate his work; Although in his films it seems that nothing happens, what happens is life.

Mekas did not believe in conspiracy or conclusion. His movies are made so that you can enter and exit a thousand times, each time it starts. This was his way of life. “Jonas loved to recreate himself. He always lived in the present. His works were not from the year they were made, but from the year they were seen,” says Leland with a smile.

Mekas made it to the end. He was still in the version of his last film, Requiem, when he died. By then he had turned to digital cinema, as he was always up for challenges. The film mixes images of flowers with collection scenes from the most tragic historical events of the 20th century. “Maybe he thought it was his last film and so he titled it like this. To me it represents the experience of a poet who has seen horrors, but who has always sought beauty,” says Brassis. “I believed in the transformative power of beauty”, explains Inessa Pavlovskite.

The idea of ​​Jonas Mekas is more alive than ever. “Civilizations in the end perish because they listen to their politicians, not their poets,” he wrote in 1962.

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