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When Filmmaking Amounts to Living


Jonas Mekas is a filmmaker who has known how to record every minute event in his life to transform it into visual poetry.

With his usual quavering voice, as he contemplates his family camping in the countryside, Jonas Mekas asserts he has found paradise. It’s his film As I was Moving Ahead, I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. The result of a sum of fragments filmed throughout fifty years, and lasting five hours, the work shows the Lithuanian filmmaker’s particular vision of film (and life). Even if, perhaps, when we refer to him it is not appropriate to differentiate film from life.

The early experience of a Nazi labor camp, which forced him and his brother to immigrate, first to Denmark and afterwards to the United States marked his career. From this experience Mekas inherited a nostalgic gaze, attached to the instant, a perennial need to record the most minimal events as a way to compensate for his uprooting. Through the camera, everyday objects and fleeting instants have been elevated to the category of cinematic poetry, making a simple walk with friends acquire the value of an immortal work of art. To transmute everyday life into art, and art into something quotidian, seems to be the purpose of Jonas Mekas’ work.

His films are the result of an extraordinary sensitivity for the fleeting, a restless eye for which reality and fiction are threads of the same tapestry. Often, in his films, he asks himself: What is real?

Together with his brother, in 1955 Mekas founded the mythical film magazine Culture, in which, in addition to his film criticism, he exposed ideas on films of the future. In some of his texts he affirmed the need for a film that is more concerned with the fate of man than with that of art.

In his fundamental Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, Mekas poetically unstitches a trip to Seminiskiai, his home country, after twenty-seven years of exile. Making use of the essential power of film, that is, of making time a plastic matter, the filmmaker recomposes through images the memory of the cardinal event of his existence.

Film as a journal, film as a testimony of life. Mekas’ films hypnotize due to their vibration, as if in them the matter of life was reorganized to denote its marvels. The peculiar vibration of light, the results of an apparently random montage, together with the film’s hypnotic flow, confer on his films the ethereal aspect of memories ––images that seem to fade just so they can appear before us.

Mekas has proven that to make film we only need a small camera and a lot of passion. His love for images encumbered the filmed diary and other minor formats to the ranks of cinematic poetry. To make film, he seems to tell us, is to have the need to steal time of every instant, the memory of every image, life of every glimpse of beauty. And for this we do not need grand means; the technical flashiness of Hollywood’s productions.

Paraphrasing Descartes, Mekas once claimed: “I film, therefore I am”; and today, over ninety years old and fully active, he still puts his existence there.


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