Mekas, Jonas

Prominent Refugees, 24 December 1922

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas

Filmmaker Jonas Mekas spent his childhood as a farmer's son in the countryside of northern Lithuania and he has taken those memories with him all over the world.

After finishing high school in 1943, his involvement in local anti-Nazi resistance led to an exile that would last a lifetime. In 1944, he and his brother were captured by the Nazis and sent to a labour camp near Hamburg. The two managed to escape, alternating between forced retreats and stays in refugee camps. During this period as a displaced person, Mekas began writing poems about his lost country and village.

After the war, he studied philosophy and romance languages at the University of Mainz, Germany, and co-founded an avant-garde magazine, Vilgsniai (Glances), with a group of Lithuanian writers, including his brother. One of his first book of poems, a rural epic called "Semeni-kiu idiles" ("Semeni-kiai Idylls"), published in 1955, gives a moving account of his memories of the village where he grew up.

Today Mekas holds an important place in the history of exile literature; his book of poems, "Reminiscences" (first published in 1972), is a harrowing account of his exile and trek through the pitiful ruins of war-torn Germany. But he is known equally for his role in cinema.

Two weeks after arriving in the United States in 1949, he and his brother bought a movie camera to capture their impressions of everyday life in Brooklyn. The brothers struggled to raise money for films, living on free food samples and rice, while trying to avoid arrest for shooting without a permit.

In 1953, Mekas launched his first film-screening programme at Gallery East. The following year, he founded and edited Film Culture, a magazine devoted to experimental cinema. He went on to establish a film column at the weekly, Village Voice, which he called Movie Journal. He was an influential figure in the cultural flowering in Greenwich Village.

Mekas helped organise the New American Cinema Group (1960) and founded the Film-Maker's Co-operative (1962), one of the largest distribution centres for independent films, as well as the Film-Makers' Cinémathèque (1963). He showcased films that rarely appeared in commercial theatres, remaining unflagging in his dedication even after he was arrested and charged for screening "Flaming Creatures" by Jack Smith, which was deemed to be obscene. Mekas continued to challenge the censors and push the limits of what could be shown.

He joined Andy Warhol and his Factory along with other "New Sexual Freedom Riders" to form the nucleus of the New York underground movement of the 1960s. Mekas would acquire a legendary role as the pioneer of American avant-garde cinema. He also co-founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, which specialised in preserving and presenting avant-garde films.

About Warhol's Empire, he commented, "If all people could sit and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and meditate upon it, there would be no more wars, no hate, no terror there would be happiness regained on earth." For him, even the mistakes and imperfections in film expressed the true and the beautiful.

"Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania" (1972) documents Mekas' initial experience in America and the brothers' reunion with their mother in 1971, haunting traces of memories and emotions. Mekas later commented, "You don't see Lithuania as it is today but through the memories of a displaced person back home for the first time in 25 years."