Today I’m going to be discussing the life and times of Jonas Mekas, an Lithuanian-American avant-garde filmmaker, critic, poet, and the co-founder of Anthology Film Archives. He has sometimes been called “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema”.
Mekas was a fixture of the New York art scene since 1949, where he had spent his life working on avant-garde and experimental films.
Jonas Mekas was born on December 24th, 1922 in a small village Semeniškiai, Lithuania.
His father, Povilas Mekas, was a skilled woodworker and could build almost anything – from a spoon to the home furniture, and Jonas, together with his five siblings, used to help him.
Despite poor living conditions, Mekas has described his childhood as a paradise. He was naturally curious – he read a lot, and used to borrow various classic books such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Victor Hugo, etc.
His passion for reading inspired him to create short texts about everything that surrounded him. In later years, his skill with writing and reading would inform his style of film-making, which involved capturing scenes on the fly, small snippets of everyday life.
At the time when Jonas Mekas was growing up, Lithuania was a newborn country that declared its independence in 1918. Between two World Wars, which had damaged the country, Lithuania was creating its own identity based on the modern European democratic principles, until everything changed with the beginning of World War II.
Following the war, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union and many people were afraid, so therefore they started to emigrate to the western countries. One such person was Jonas Mekas, who, together with his brother Adolfas Mekas, flew first to Germany in 1944, and to the US in 1949.
Getting His First Camera
It all began when he got his first camera as a present from his older brother. Later he will describe it as a mesmerizing experience by saving his photographic film very carefully because it was extremely rare and expensive.
Jonas shared an unforgettable moment of his first picture in his memoir: the Russian army entered Lithuania in 1940 and he as a young teenager decided to capture the soldiers and their military machinery when suddenly he saw one soldier running towards him.
The angry invader took his camera from Jonas’s hands and damaged its film.
Falling In Love With Film
After coming to New York, Jonas Mekas got his first camera – a Bolex – and started to capture everyday moments. He was open to new and interesting cinematic experiments, and therefore he filmed basically everything that he saw – daily life in Brooklyn, people of all kinds of nations and races, immigrants, and native Americans.
Mekas’ roots were always an important subject in his filming and there are filmed material from Lithuania while it was occupied by the Soviet Union.
Since the occupation took time between 1940 and 1990, it was not easy to go back and visit his relatives and friends because of the Soviet regime.
Mekas remembers how challenging it was not only to enter the country but to go to his village – there was a special woman from the Communist Party who had to “help” him during his trip.
Of course, he couldn’t say everything he wanted to because there was no free speech at the time, and you could have been taken for interrogation by KGB (Committee for State Security).
Despite unique circumstances, Jonas had an opportunity to meet his relatives and record the surroundings and private life of citizens in 1970’s Lithuania under the Soviet occupation.
Soon after coming to the United States, Jonas Mekas bought his first 16 mm camera from borrowed money and started to film his everyday life scenes. Together with his brother Adolfas, he got interested in avant-garde cinema and became a frequent visitor at various movies in Brooklyn, where he resided.
Since 1954, Mekas printed and worked as an editor of the magazine “Film Culture”. Around that time he started to create avant-garde movies himself. Next to this creative activity, he remained an active preserver of the American avant-garde cinema and in 1962 together with his brother co-founded “The Film Makers Cooperative”, which later developed into “Anthology Film Archives” – one of the most important and biggest avant-garde cinema archives in the world!
Being active, sociable, and interested in experimental art forms brought Mekas into the relationship and cooperation with such artists as Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Peter Kubelka, and others.
In the 1990’s, he switched to a digital camera, because before that he filmed with his favorite analog Bolex camera. Mekas himself described his filming style as the martial art Kung Fu – you don’t think, rather, just immediately do how you feel at that moment, because the moment you start thinking, you will not create anything good.
Jonas Mekas met another refugee from Lithuania, George Mačiūnas, who is considered as a founder of the art movement Fluxus. Mekas remembers that they both started to cooperate on various projects. (Read: https://davidcharlesfox.com/fluxus-when-art-got-cancelled/)
From Lithuania to New York – all the places that appeared in Mekas’ movies are recorded with an authentic, naked and honest, therefore surprisingly brave look on everything that surrounds him.
The artist simply refused to create a traditional type of movie, and he focused on the documentary shots of how he saw the world instead.
While watching Mekas’ videos, you get a feeling of something pure, nostalgic, rhythmic…such as when he filmed the traditional food making by his mother or street life of New York. It is a very intimate look to his own roots without trying to show it as better than it really was. Therefore, this type of “take it as it is” authenticity help us to understand why his name got such rapt attention from art curators and enthusiasts all around the world…then, as now.
Jonas Mekas’ Works