Jonas Mekas arrived as an exile from Lithuania to New York, fleeing persecution by the Soviets and Nazis, and as soon as he had a camera he began to record his own life. A few years later he was the spokesman for the cinema underground, He rubbed shoulders with Warhol, John Lennon or Allen Ginsberg. With his films and his work as a critic, he made visible a new way of making films that wanted to put an end to the Hollywood discourse: films without stars and almost always without actors, in which the duration or the plot did not matter, made by creators who did not They belonged to the entertainment industry, and they loved the movies.
Jonas Mekas, godfather of American experimental cinema, dies
His work has influenced the entire independent film scene and the work of other artists off the screen: Mekas not only made films, he was a critic, programmer, writer and curator, and he supported and cared for the work of many creators. It is now 100 years since his birth and the festivals around the world pay tribute to him, three years after his death. In Spain, DocumentaMadrid, the non-fiction film festival, shows with beauty flashes a mekas retrospective and different activities around his work. One of them, by Orquestina de Pigmeos, the group promoted by the musician Nilo Gallego and the audiovisual creator Chus Domínguez who, this time, have made an intervention inspired by Mekas’s amateur and popular approach to music. In Valencia, an exhibition at the Espai d’Art Fotogràfic approaches his work and personal life under the title Frozen light of Jonas Mekas.
Chus Dominguez, a filmmaker with films that navigate between documentary, experimental creation or non-fiction cinema, drinks from Mekas’s cinematography. “His cinema of him is a kind of ethnography of the everyday, a capture of those fleeting moments of beauty that make up our little lives. For me, he is the creator whose work identifies more with that which is so great and at the same time difficult to capture: life. And it is a cinema of the self, in the best sense, that aside from valuing the everyday, it also pays attention to people, the filmmaker himself, his family and his network of friends”, he explains.
Jonas Mekas visited Madrid in 2011 to participate in a film series at La Casa Encendida. There, in conversation with this journalist, he explained where he chooses to set his sights: “My main concern in cinema is to record real moments of real life, intense, essential moments, like when people are happy, doing something that is important to them. , but perhaps not important to anyone else. It is something almost invisible, maybe I am a kind of anthropologist”, said the filmmaker when upon arriving in Madrid, almost 90 years old, he went straight to Puerta del Sol to get to know 15M up close.
the eternal exile
The life of Jonas Mekas is an amazing adventure. He was born in 1922 in a town in Lithuania. In 1940 the Soviets invaded the country and a year later, the Germans did. In 1944, Mekas had to leave Lithuania with his brother and almost walk across Europe. He was in labor camps in Nazi Germany, where he saw the first movies, and arrived in New York five years after leaving his country. He wandered its streets, worked in his factories, and suffered from hunger and poverty. One day he borrowed money to buy a Bolex camera, and he didn’t stop recording until his death.
Mekas had always considered himself an eternal refugee in the country of refugees, and he wondered if it had anything to do with being uprooted from his home. Until the end of his life, he treasured one of those moments of beauty that he tried to capture with his camera: “I have saved one of my first childhood memories. I was two and a half years old, I was in a potato field, I grew up on a farm. He was sucking on an almost empty honey can that still had some honey in it. And I remember the smell of the white and yellow flowers of potatoes. You never know what you are going to remember, I have forgotten many important facts, I have lived through wars, occupations, four labor camps, and I have forgotten them. But I remember the potato field, the smell of the potatoes in bloom”, Mekas recounted during his visit to Madrid.
Jonas Mekas wrote a film column in a popular medium, the Village Voice, founded Film-Makers, a cooperative to produce and disseminate avant-garde cinema, and with his brother set up Film Culture magazine, where he published his writings as a diary and that served as a platform for other artists such as Nico, John Lennon, Allen Gingsberg or Andy Warhol. In 1970 he created the Anthology Film Archives, one of the most important archives in the world for preserving experimental and avant-garde cinema.
“He was a total creator,” says director Chus Domínguez, “and what is important is that an essential part of his work consisted of discovering and making other people’s works known. Your book no place to go, about his own exile, is a masterpiece. Towards the end of the book, in ’55, before he could take off in a New York that he still felt hostile, he writes: ‘I know very well that whatever money we make we’re going to have to sink into our movies. Walk on an empty stomach. That is our nature. Or our destiny. We are not businessmen, we are poets’. I think that when he names ‘our films’ he is making a statement, everyone’s films, all those who were betting on another way of making movies, and there he was, with an empty stomach but fighting for them”, says Domínguez.
Mekas was a walking camera, he recorded his day to day, and after a while he assembled those images to form filmic diaries of his own life, in which his voice in off accompanies everyday images.
His films are made of that material, like Lost, lost, lost either Reminiscences of a trip to Lithuania, a diary about his return to his country, 25 years after having had to leave, and where he shows how nothing is the same anymore, and there are no farming villages or small potato fields left. The movie Along the way, from time to time, I glimpsed brief moments of beauty, which premiered in the year 2000, is assembled from recordings accumulated over 30 years of his life.
The director Chus Domínguez explains how, in principle, Mekas considered making films along the lines of North American independent cinema, with actors and a small recording team. “He did a couple of feature films that way but it must have seemed like an exhausting experience. He was getting more and more involved in archiving, networking and writing about other people’s films, and he didn’t have time to develop his own projects. But he always recorded his moments of shared leisure and his travels with his Bolex camera, and over the years he accumulated his own archive that gave rise to the diaristic films for which he is known, ”says the filmmaker.
Mekas continued filming until the end of his life, and adapting to the technological changes in the environment. “Since the turn of the century, a video camera accompanied him every day, and he came to do projects like the 365 Day Project, in 2007, in which he promised to record and publish every day for a year”, explains Domínguez.
Mekas in Madrid
Pygmy Orchestra was preparing a work to inaugurate the programming of the Matadero, in Madrid, in 2017. Nilo Gallego and Chus Domínguez wanted to be inspired, once again, by Mekas. “The play was about displacement and exile, and was inspired by Mekas’s book No place to go. He was visiting Spain to participate in the Filmadrid festival, and we wrote to him telling him about our project. He surprised us by coming to one of our rehearsals. At one point, he took out his video camera and began to record a dance that the Romanian women participating in the work were rehearsing, with Julián Mayorga playing live. He later published that recording in his diary, which made us emotional. Seeing how he enjoyed the rehearsal of an amateur company and how he valued it reminds me of that work he had been doing all his life, spreading the works that moved him”, recalls Chus Domínguez.
In 1997, on the occasion of the centenary of cinema, Mekas published a manifesto that continues to be overwhelmingly current. “In these times of big-show movies, of hundreds of million-dollar productions, I want to take the floor in favor of the small, of the invisible acts of the human spirit, so subtle, so small that they die as soon as they are touched. place under sunlight. In these times when everyone wants to be successful and sell, I want to toast those who sacrifice social success for the search for the invisible, the personal, things that do not bring money or bread, and that do not make you enter in Contemporary History, in the History of Art or in any other History. The true history of cinema is invisible, the history of friends who meet, who do what they love”, wrote Mekas.
Chus Domínguez reflects on the enormous influence of the legacy of Mekas, who he considers a teacher. “I think that Mekas has influenced my life more than in my work, I have lived with his cinema and his texts some of my best moments, and I have learned with him and his work to appreciate the small and the everyday, and that is a lot, because it is what we always have with us”.
“We need less perfect but freer films”, said Mekas, opening the door to others “to other ways of understanding cinema, creation, even life”. “I always try to remember that phrase,” adds Domínguez.