In the fifty-five years that I’ve known Jonas Mekas, I have never seen him without a camera, ready to use. First it was a 16 mm Bolex, then a series of video and digital recording devices. Today, most often, it’s a mobile phone. Mekas refers to himself simply as a “filmer” these days, rather than as a filmmaker. He never conceived of himself as a “film director.” Looking back at his enormous body of work in literature—poetry, essays, journals—and in film and photography, Mekas concludes that the form binding all of it together is the diary.
He does not use words casually. As a teenager (born in 1922), Mekas was a published poet in his native Lithuania even before he picked up his first camera to photograph the occupying German army on parade. An officer snatched the camera from his hand; Mekas was fortunate not to be snatched himself. But soon after, he and his younger brother Adolfas, realizing that they were wanted men, fled the country, bound for university in Vienna. They were quickly arrested and sent to a German forced labor camp. After the war, they lived for four years in displaced persons camps, one of them in Kassel. Jonas kept a diary during this period, later published as I Had Nowhere to Go (1991). He also acquired a still camera. The lens wasn’t very sharp, but Mekas’s eye was. His desire to bear witness—to record daily life, not only so that he would remember but so that history would take notice—began with photos of displaced people, waiting to return to their former lives or to begin life anew. Mekas could not go back to Lithuania, which, as he later wrote, had been “awarded to the Soviet Union.” The Soviets considered him as much a troublemaker as the Nazis had.
Instead, Mekas chose New York, and within months of arriving had scraped together enough money to buy his first Bolex camera. As he could barely afford rent and food, he conserved his precious film stock, shooting in extremely short bursts—just enough to capture the movement of time, to suggest how the present becomes memory. Or to put it another way, Mekas’s many diary films, including the most poignant among them, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) are testaments to the struggle to live as a visionary in the present moment, knowing that the mind’s eye will always be suffused with the ghosts of the past.