A poet and a cosmopolitan

by Jonas Mekas

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

My life would undoubtedly have been a happy one. But I had to be thrown out and everything that has happened since then had to happen, in order to bring me here today. In 1944, in the turmoil following the Second World War, my brother Adolfas and I fled Lithuania. We spent almost all of the next six years in Germany. At first in a forced labour camp in Elmshorn, then as farm workers near the Danish border. I would not see my family again for 25 years. After the end of the war we could not return to Lithuania because of the Soviet occupation and we survived, homeless, in displaced persons camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel. These were our years in the desert. We had nothing at the time.

And then, when we landed in New York in 1949, we suddenly had everything! New York in the 1950s was full of energy, everything was changing: The way people were living, and all those things like art, theatre, literature and naturally cinema. I arrived in New York at exactly the right time. My whole life there was poetry.

If I look back now, I see that so-called Western civilisation stole ten years of my life. Ten years of flight and war. But I have forgotten all that, it no longer exists for me. Nostalgia is something wonderful because one forgets all of the horror and brutality. When I think back, I remember my youth, moments full of beauty and fortune, in nature. That is why I won’t film the apartment blocks in New York. I’d rather film a small plant I’ve discovered somewhere. I film the trees.

Very soon after I landed in New York I bought a 16 millimetre Bolex and began to document my life with the camera. My cinematic diary was everything I saw. I’ve been writing since I was six years old. The written diary contained my thoughts. Those are two very different ways to work with reality. Film is much more physical, more direct. My cinema is not one of the intellect. I don’t meditate about it and I don’t make any plans. Instead I just film fragments of what is happening. I never know beforehand what will happen. It’s like life, pure coincidence, automatic reactions to situations that I have gone through. I record it, put the film cassette on a shelf and years later I look at it again, and maybe I can use it for something.

Many people find beauty banal. But I am not interested in ugly, painful things. I only film moments of beauty. The cinema of poetry, the avant garde, celebrates beauty. My life has been spent trying to preserve this subtle kind of poetry.

In 1950s New York there were many young people like us, our heads full of ideas but with no platform where we could talk about interesting kinds of cinema. We needed a place for that. That is why my brother and I founded the magazine, Film Culture, in 1954. Even though Film Culture officially stopped publishing in 1996, there will be one last issue this September, dedicated to the film-maker Barbara Rubin.

In the following years we founded a film-maker’s collective and a cinematheque, both of which became the Anthology Film Archives in 1970. With over 30,000 titles, we are trying to save what cinema has achieved so far. Currently we want to develop the archive into a library and we are always looking for financial support for that. This year I will be 96 and I’ve lived in New York for over 60 years. In the first years after I left my homeland I still felt very Lithuanian. But I don’t think it’s positive if you just stay in one place your whole life, like a mushroom! It’s in the nature of humankind to travel, to acquire new knowledge, to grow. I feel like a citizen of the world. I don’t belong anywhere, but I belong everywhere.

Transcribed by Gundula Haage

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