“I don't like it because there is a big misunderstanding,” he said as he spoke to this paper in his Clinton Hill studio in August before Hurricane Irene was set to hit. “It all began long before I was born.”
Mekas says he is just a filmmaker interested in developing diaristic, real-life cinema – the type of cinema that has come to be his signature. “I can work and film only the people and life I know that is close to me, that I can catch with a camera,” he said.
Just before he arrived on America's shores in 1950 at the age of 27, Mekas had already become extremely interested in cinema. But it was not until he landed in New York that he was able to follow his dream.
Before arriving as a refugee in exile from Lithuania, Mekas had served time in a German forced labor camp, as the country had occupied Lithuania during their invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. He was 22 at the time. He stayed in the camp for one year then spent another four years in displaced prison camps all over Germany.
“It wasn't difficult to end up there if you were a certain age,” he said. “The Germans took anyone who they thought could do work for them.”
But after starting out as a journalist in Lithuania and being socially conscious, Mekas was also involved in underground activities and publications, some of which were anti-Soviet. He even penned an anti-Stalin anthem.
The United Nations Refugee Organization had extracted Mekas and his brother, Adolfas, from the camps and had arranged a job for him in Chicago.
He left behind his parents, three brothers and one sister, and when he landed in New York by ship, they both agreed that this was where they would stay. “We said no we're not going to Chicago, we are in New York, it would be stupid to go to Chicago,” he said.
He couldn't go back or communicate with his family because it would have placed them in jeopardy as the Soviet police were keeping guard.
“There was no way back,” Mekas said. “For more than 10 years I couldn't correspond with my parents. If you received a letter from the United States, that means you are already under suspicion. Writing to them would have endangered them.”
Mekas knew someone who had already arrived in New York, and before long he and his brother settled in Williamsburg. But Mekas also spent some time living in Maspeth, Queens, and later on Greenpoint, before moving to Clinton Hill.
His introduction into New York's film scene was rapid. The second day he arrived in New York, he found a copy of the New York Times that listed an avant-garde film screening. “It was very fast because after the war in Europe, nothing was accessible,” he said. “We were like dry sponges ready to absorb anything that there was. So here we are in New York, and everything is at our fingertips. For two, three years we were crazy getting everything into us.”
He then began organizing screenings, and later on began Film Culture Magazine. In 1958, he started writing a column for The Village Voice. “I could not get out of it,” he said.
Sitting in his studio/home with stacks of archives surrounding the kitchen table and with two rescued cats lounging about, he talked about his writing, his poetry and his films, including a new one which will premier at the first Greenpoint Film Festival, set to happen at the end of October.
The film is about Mars Bar, the famed dive bar that used to sit on First Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan before it closed in July.
“It was always our bar,” he said. “Those who came to see films would go there afterward.”
He and friends would also go there after working at Anthology Film Archives, a nonprofit arts center located on 2nd Avenue and East 2nd Street that Mekas founded with a few other creative people in 1970.
He took roughly 20 years of footage and pulled it together.
“We always had a great time at Mars Bar. It was always open, there was always a jukebox, and very often there was no electricity,” he said. “It was old and messy and didn't want to be any other way. This is my love letter to it.”
It's not the first love letter he has dedicated to a particular place. In “A Letter from Greenpoint,” he records his earlier life in the largely Polish neighborhood of North Brooklyn.
“Friends were asking me how is it in Greenpoint, what's happening there, so I said, 'okay, instead of talking to you I will put this footage together,'” he said.
Mekas is always taking film wherever he is, putting it together to share with his friends. He noted that all of his films are made for his friends and all of it only deals with real life.
“What else do you need?” he said. “The most important thing is real life.”
Growing up on a farm, he says, enabled him to remain down to earth – literally and figuratively.
“Some people call me a realist, some people call me romantic,” he said. “But I think it's very beautiful to be called [romantic] because it means, you love people, you love life, you love earth, you love everything around you. We need more of it today.”
It is this love we have for the world we are in and the people we are surrounded by that Mekas says enables us to “keep the little fragments of paradise alive.”
“That is, whatever is still beautiful and valuable that we have around us – we should try to keep it alive, not permit it to disappear and be destroyed,” he said. “When I film, that's what my cinema is all about.”
For more information on Jonas Mekas, visit jonasmekasfilms.com.