On a rainy April afternoon I met with Jonas Mekas in a little bar in the Lower East Side next to the Anthology Film Archives (AFA), the institution that he founded and has run for very many years. The Anthology Film Archives is at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street, a building that is an architectural landmark. Purchased in 1979 and adapted to reuse, it opened in 1989 and is a mecca for the avant garde arts as a screening venue and repository of independent and classic cinema. It remains a key component of the artistic vitality of the East Village, since nowhere else can scholars and connoisseurs of cinema find such a comprehensive collection of works. Its holdings include books, periodicals, posters, lectures and interviews, festival posters, audio and visual materials.
Mekas is sitting in the corner of the bar, smiling, very alive, and with a glass of wine in front of him.
He says: “The average people do not understand the difference between forced labour camps and concentration camps. These were two different things. Concentration camps were for Jews and political prisoners; forced labour camps were for workers dragged from all the countries of Europe to run the German war machine. I am a Lithuanian, and I was in forced labour camps, where we had to work. I was a Protestant, my parents were Protestant from the North part of Lithuania. In Lithuania 99% of people are Catholic, but there is this small 1% enclave of Protestant families.”
When you came out of the labour camps you spent 5 years in displaced persons’ camps?
Yes, they are similar to what is happening in Europe today, and in Asia. We were well taken care of by the United Nations.
What were you doing for so long in a displaced person’s camp with your brother Adolfas?
We stayed there because we could not go back to Lithuania, which was occupied by the Soviet Union. All the Russians in the camp were taken by force into the Soviet Union immediately after the war. I was first in Hamburg, then in Wiesbaden, then in Kassel, in Germany from 1945 to 1949.
Did you discover your passion for cinema at that time?
Yes, I began writing scripts, preparing myself. I wanted to make films.
How come you went to America?
I did not want to go to America, I wanted to work. We had to take any possible work to escape the camp, and my brother and I found work in a ship and we signed up, but just before that somebody in Chicago found work for us in a bakery and they made arrangements and tickets for us to come to New York by boat and then on by train to Chicago. When we landed in New York we decided to stay in Williamsburg, because we had a friend where we could stay before we found our own apartment. I narrate this story in a book titled “I Had Nowhere to Go”.
When did you start working with cinema?
Cinema started with watching films. We went to the Museum of Modern Art and Film Societies which were showing not-commercial films. We saw the non-commercial films of Jean Epstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and others, and many early silent films, and the avant garde of the French and Germans from authors like Hans Richter, Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp.
Then we bought a camera. My brother and I were the youngest in our family, very close together, and he also liked cinema. We began filming… filming…. filming… in Williamsburg, the streets, the people. It was an area of Lithuanian immigrants and we did a lot of documentary footage of the life of Lithuanian immigrants. I started to write for Intro Bulletin, which was a monthly newspaper about art. Then, in late 1954, I began with my brother to publish Film Culture magazine, and in 1958 I began writing for the Village Voice.
You were a very unusual cinema critic?
Yes, I was the only one writing on the avant garde, the Nouvelle Vague, the new Italian cinema.
What about your own films?
My first film I finished in 1951 and it was presented in the Porretta Terme Film Festival in Italy. The title was Guns of the Trees. One of my reviewers at the time was Alberto Moravia, who liked it very much. Then my life became very busy. I was writing for the Village Voice, I was editing film, cultural magazines and filming every day. My life was complicated also because in 1959 I organised the New American Cinema Group, with almost thirty of us, and in 1961 I organised the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. We went to the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, the first independent American cinema festival.
Who were the directors at that time?
John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, Robert Frank, Gregory Markopoulos, Jerome Hill, myself and others. We sent a big travelling exhibition to Torino and Roma. Pasolini came to every screening in Rome.
Which were your favourite authors?
Many, and I cannot answer such questions, I cannot limit myself to a few best. Different countries, styles, forms, genres. I met Antonioni, Rossellini, Fellini came to the Cinematheque and I was Fellini’s guide in New York. I took him to Coney Island and to Harlem. We had many meetings with Rossellini. He was very interested in low budget production and distribution methods. Jean Luc Godard was not my favourite film-maker. I liked Breathless, and Pravda may be my favourite film of his, then he became pretentious and politically confused. Michelangelo Antonioni was honest and sincere, I very much liked his films, like La Notte and L’Avventura.
What about the American cinema?
It has a great history, but my writing was devoted to independent cinema. At the beginning I have talked about the nouvelle vague and then I devoted entirely to writing about the independent cinema. There were 1,000 newspapers and magazines writing about commercial cinema, but only one in the whole world that wrote about avant garde independent cinema, the Village Voice. Cinema is like a big tree with many branches that are totally ignored, even today. Today because of the internet all the cinema forms have the same chance to be known and seen.
You were a friend of Salvador Dali?
From 1962,’63,’64… we worked together. He was making ‘happening theatre’ in the streets, in homes, and I was filming it. I always liked Salvador Dali’s work, Dali’s a very important artist and a very funny person to be with. He had a great sense of humour and he was a great actor, always acting in life.
What kind of cinema do you like?
All films, all anthologies, we keep them all in the Anthology Film Archives. It is a non-profit Foundation. I created it, but it belongs to the people. It is open to the public every day, there are two theatres open all the time.
Is New York an interesting place for cinema?
It is the busiest in the US for arts. New York is for all forms of cinema, not only for commercial productions.
Since you started cinema has changed quite a lot?
It begins with technology. Moving images has been changing. I pass no judgment about the changes. It is just changing. Now we have digital technology, and each technology opens to new concepts. What you could do with video you could not do with cameras, it becomes more personal. What you see at a website or on YouTube. I only videotape real life around me, I make diaries with my camera.
Did you also write books?
I have written so much and I am very busy. I mainly wrote in English, but I don’t write books, only pieces. I am not a novelist. My books are mostly collections of my writings on cinema and other arts.
But where are your films?
I made about 100 films and 500 videos and they are all at Anthology Film Archives. In 2007 I made a film every day. That year I made 365 short films. It is a special project. You can see them on my website. I don’t only make films or videos but I also make installations, for instance recently in Brescia my exhibition went from January to the end of March at the Gallery A Palazzo, and before that it was in Venice and it probably will go to Naples. There are 32 panels in glass with images from my films printed on them, and there are also three rooms with different series of images taken from my website.
What happened to your brother Adolfas?
He made five films. One of these films, Hallelujah the Hills, is very well known and was shown in Cannes, and then he became a teacher and created a very important film department at Bard College. Sadly he passed away, almost five years ago.
Are you married and have children?
I have a daughter, Oona. She is an actress and a film-maker operating from Los Angeles. I have a son Sebastian, he lives with me and finished mathematics in Beijing and now he is studying linguistics. My wife is a very good photographer.
At 93 you are still involved with cinema?
I am possessed by cinema, I don’t know why. It was decided by angels. I believe in angels and muses, the Greek system, they get into you and you cannot resist. The muse of cinema possessed me and I cannot get rid of it.
What about other arts?
I was in the theatre at the beginning in Lithuania with my brother. We created a theatre in our small city and my brother continued. He also worked as an actor, I didn’t.
Were you influenced by pop art or by music?
Just the opposite. I think I helped the Velvet Underground group come into existence. They began their rehearsals at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque and my loft was Andy Warhol’s school of cinema, he learned cinema in my loft. I was not influenced, but helped to create it.
How come you were a friend of John Lennon?
I met John Lennon through Yoko Ono in 1971, because I met Yoko in 1966 and later, when she wanted to come to New York, I gave her a job at Film Culture magazine so that she could legally live in New York, and we are still friends. I think she is a great artist. I think that Warhol was important, as one of the great film-makers of the period.
In what kind of world do we live today?
We are living in a transitional period of our civilization. It could be compared to the period described in the Bible as the Tower of Babel. Nobody understands each other, nobody wants to co-operate with each other. Very few know or think about God. We have forgotten God. We are not following a single one of the Ten Commandments any more. We are destroying our earth. Incas and Aztecs destroyed their land, and when they made that land as desert they moved to other lands, but when we finish destroying our lands there will be no other lands for us to go to. Every disaster that is happening today we brought it ourselves, so we cannot complain, but in any case earth will survive. I am only repeating what Jakob Böhme wrote in the 16th Century. Everybody should read him again, and also should read the writings of the great Sufi Ibn ’Arabi.
Do you have any nostalgia for Europe? Are you still a displaced person?
I am now displacing myself as often as I can. The meaning of what is a place for me has changed in my life. A place for me today is not only a geographical place. I live in different spiritual places and they are as real, and I would say more real, than geographical places. There is such a wide variety of spiritual places, in which I am trying to spend some time so that I can progress further in my destiny.
Are you religious?
I believe in spiritual life, which is so complex and cannot be defined, and I will never be able to understand it fully. But I am trying. That’s all I can do.
Fanaticism is frightening you?
Religious fanaticism and dogmatism is one of humanity’s mistakes and tragedies.
What are your plans?
I never make plans for my life, but I make plans for the Anthology Film Archives such that we can show and protect films. I am planning to make a library at the top of the current building, that will be my work for the next three years. A library of paper materials from anthology books to documentaries.
Do you go back to Lithuania?
Every three or four years I go back. It is still my country, my language. In Lithuania I am considered as a poet, not a filmmaker.
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Leading Portrait of Jonas Mekas is by Boris Lehman.
All images courtesy and by kind permission of Jonas Mekas.