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THE ENTHUSIASTS ARCHIVE

Banner stills L to R: Innocence Unprotected, courtesy Dušan Makavejev; Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
Jonas Mekas, Lithuania/USA, 1972, 16 mm, color, 82 minutes

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas (b. 1922) is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in the genres of diary and essay film, as well as an influential critic, film programmer, and organizer, who was instrumental in the emergence of a diverse avant-garde cinema scene in postwar America. He is also someone who has stressed in numerous interviews the crucial role that his experience during World War II and status as a displaced person after the war played in shaping his artistic vision.

Mekas first started filming the life around him in 1949, mere weeks after he and his brother, Adolfas, arrived in New York from Europe. In 1969, he completed his first diary film, Walden, which documented through short snippets of footage, intertitles, and an evocative sound track the five previous years of Mekas’ life in New York. Released in 1972, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania was Mekas’ second diary film, which narrates through highly personal footage and voiceover the Mekas brothers’ visit to their native Lithuanian village of Semeniškiai in 1971 after a 27-year absence.

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

As Mekas describes it, “The film consists of three parts. The first part is made up of footage I shot with my first Bolex, during my first years in America, mostly from 1950–1953. It shows me and my brother Adolfas, how we looked in those days; miscellaneous footage of immigrants in Brooklyn, picnicking, dancing, singing; the streets of Williamsburg.
    "The second part was shot in August 1971, in Lithuania. Almost all of the footage comes from Semeniškiai, the village I was born in. You see the old house, my mother (born 1887), all the brothers, goofing, celebrating our homecoming. You don’t really see how Lithuania is today: you see it only through the memories of a Displaced Person back home for the first time in twenty-five years.
    “The third part begins with a parenthesis in Elmshorn, a suburb of Hamburg, where we spent a year in a forced labor camp during the war. After the parenthesis closes, we are in Vienna where we see some of my best friends—Peter Kubelka, Hermann Nitsch, Annette Michelson, Ken Jacobs. The film ends with the burning of the Vienna fruit market, August, 1971.”

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

The film was made under extraordinary circumstances. For years the Mekas brothers had no contact with their family, which was put under surveillance because of Jonas Mekas’ anti-Stalinist stance years earlier. In 1971, however, Mekas was invited to attend the Moscow Film Festival, where his film The Brig was screened as an “antimilitary, anticapitalist” work. In light of this positive coverage, as well as Mekas’ acquaintance a few years earlier in New York with the editor of Pravda, he was suddenly treated differently by the Communist authorities in Lithuania and allowed to visit his mother and the village of his birth.[1] He was, in fact, even offered a chance to stay but has later explained that “it was clear already at that time that there was no going back to Lithuania for me.”[2]

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Mekas’ trauma of being a “displaced person” shows up in many of his films and interviews, but nowhere is it more poignantly foregrounded than in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. In 1944, Jonas and Adolfas fled their home under the cover of night, fearing violence from both Soviet and Nazi troops for having spread publications against both nations’ attempts to take over Lithuania. Arrested in Germany as they were trying to reach Vienna, the brothers spent a year in a forced labor camp until the end of the war and then a further four years in German displaced persons’ camps before being brought over to the United States by the United Nations. Indeed, it was seeing a poor filmic representation of the experiences of displaced persons like themselves that first got the Mekas brothers interested in film. “I saw . . . The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948), about displaced persons, made immediately after the war,” Jonas has recounted, “and I saw it with my brother and we got very angry about how little understanding of the real situation there was in this film, about what it means to be displaced. We got angry and we started writing scripts. That’s when we decided to make our own films. That’s where it begins.”[3]

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Of the experiences of his youth in Europe, Mekas has said, “It was all just misery and displacement and suffering and loss.” And it is to a sense of loss—in particular, the loss of a beloved home—that Mekas attributes his obsession with documenting the world around him on film. “As a displaced person, I felt that I had lost so much, my country, my family, even my early written diaries, ten years of them, that I developed the need to try to retain everything I was passing through, by means of my Bolex camera. It became an obsession, a passion, a sickness. . . . When you go through what I went through, the wars, occupations, genocides, forced labor camps, displaced person camps, and lying in a blooming potato field—I’ll never forget the whiteness of the flowers, my face down to the earth, after jumping out the window, while German soldiers held my father against the wall, a gun in his back—then you don’t understand human beings anymore. I have never understood them since then, and I just film, record everything, with no judgment, that I see. Not exactly ‘everything,’ only the brief moments that I feel like filming. . . . What makes me choose those moments? I don’t know. It’s my whole past memory that makes me choose the moments that I film.” Elsewhere, Mekas has commented, “We lived in a century where for maybe half the world it was made impossible to remain at home. So now, I often say that cinema is my home.”

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Still from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Notably, though he made his home in cinema, Jonas Mekas never pursued a formal education in filmmaking, developing, instead, an attitude of defiant amateurism and “unprofessionalism.” This, in addition to his frequent reflections on the personal experience of historic trauma and his desire to produce “oppositional” cinema that defies the clichés of its time, makes him a kindred spirit with many of the filmmakers who made independent and experimental cinema in the Eastern Bloc. Like them, Mekas chose easily accessible technical means to capture the world around him, focusing in particular on his family and community of fellow artists. Like them, he created alternative spaces, notably Anthology Film Archives in New York, which remains one of the flagship institutions promoting experimental filmmaking in America today. Like them, finally, he has made his films in part as a comment on how someone can cope with a feeling of profound cultural displacement by making art.  — Ksenya Gurshtein

With thanks to Jonas Mekas, John Klacsmann and Anthology Film Archives, New York, and MM Serra at The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, New York, for their help in our research of the film and for making a screening of it possible in Washington.

 

1. Jonas Mekas and Scott MacDonald, “Jonas Mekas on His Films, Interview with Scott MacDonald (1982–1983),” in Jonas Mekas, exh. cat. (Cologne, 2008), 167. The full story of how Mekas received permission to visit Lithuania while attending the Moscow Film Festival is recounted in the same interview and in the essay “Yuri Zhukov & Pravda and a trip to Lithuania” found in the liner notes that accompany the DVD of the film released by Re:Voir, Paris, 2012. (back to top)

2. Jonas Mekas and Scott MacDonald, “Jonas Mekas on His Films, Interview with Scott MacDonald (1982–1983),” in Jonas Mekas, exh. cat. (Cologne, 2008), 169. (back to top)

3. Mekas recounts the same story in Jonas Mekas and Scott MacDonald, “Jonas Mekas on His Films, Interview with Scott MacDonald (1982–1983),” in Jonas Mekas, exh. cat. (Cologne, 2008), 138. (back to top)