Jurgis Bielinis Public Library in Biržai | Jonas Mekas and Adolfas Mekas Heritage Research Center
“My passion for Lithuania is constant,” Jonas Mekas
The magic and power of numbers in the life of Jonas Mekas, a farmboy in his hometown of Semeniškiai, Honorary Citizen of Biržai, citizen of the world, avantgarde filmmaker are these: he celebrated his 95th birthday on December 24, 2017 in New York, a city that he arrived in when he was 27; he left Semeniškiai in Lithuania in 1944 together with his brother Adolfas, who died in 2011; he has been living in the world’s megapolis for 68 years, having spent 5 years before that in Germany in a Displaced Persons Camp.
In 1970, he founded Anthology Film Archives, one of the largest archives of avantgarde films in the world. He has been granted Honorary Doctorate degrees at prestigious academic institutions, is a laureate of international film festivals and the recipient of many prestigious awards.
Among them is a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Jonas on December 3, 2017 at the B3 Biennale of the Moving Image in Frankfurt, Germany.
While preparing for a celebration of Jonas Mekas’ at the Longing for Snow event at the Biržai Library at the end of 2017, I was very lucky to be able to correspond with our famous hometown boy and he agreed to answer a few questions.
What follows is an interview with Jonas that is spare in words, but deep in its insights. During the interview, the artist himself noted that poets use words sparingly and insisted that no changes be made to a single word or even a comma without his express permission…
Jonas, what kind of a mood are you in nowadays?
I’m living normally, taking my time, one step at a time, not looking backwards, but forward and enjoying the beauty of the world.
If you could go back in time to 1944, when you left your home in Lithuania with your brother Adolfas, would you do it all over again the same way?
Yes. If I had to repeat my life, I would repeat it exactly the same as now. Why? Because I never planned anything. Everything was planned by the angels. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but they do.
Let’s imagine that you’ve returned to the village of Semeniškiai and it’s full of people and activity. What would be the first task you would undertake in your native village and on the farm?
I’d stop and say, “A miracle happened here…”
You can see a true version without any miracles in my film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. I’m coming home. And the first thing that I do is go to the well for a taste of Semeniškiai! And I say, “You won’t find water like in Semeniškiai anywhere else…”
In one of your interviews, you said that your first acquaintance with film was in Biržaiwhere you were a high school student. It’s symbolic that the first film that you saw was an American one. You were a high-school student then. Did you have any kind of a feeling that you would someday become a filmmaker yourself?
No, I wasn’t in Biržai yet. At the end of fourth grade at the Laužadiškis Primary School, our teacher, Mrs. Šernienė (who, by the way, was the first one to call me a poet…) decided to bring us to Biržai, to the movies! So, that’s how I saw a movie for the first time in my life, some sort of melodrama. I don’t remember anything from that film, but I do remember very well a short film with Mickey Mouse that was shown before the melodrama. The thought that I would someday in the far-off future myself become involved in film, was still securely hidden under the wing of an angel.
What are your memories from Biržai High School that celebrated its 100th anniversary in November of 2017?
I spent a relatively short period of time at BiržaiHigh School. But I do remember the faces. Friends. Teachers. I hear laughter. The beginning of my youth. And confusion. A few empty school desks one morning. Deportations. Books. Books.
You say that you don’t film, you videograph. What are you videographing now? And what are you writing?
You can take a look on the internet to see what I’m filming at jonasmekasfilms.com. You can see what I’ve been writing there as well. Life goes on. Step by step…
You continue to write and speak Lithuanian wonderfully. Is the Lithuanian language still important to you while living among the artists of Soho, sitting in cafes in Manhattan, wandering around boundless New York and the world?
I will always be!
What did you bring to America and the world from the “culture of bare feet?” That was your expression about a person’s childhood, which in part also determines who we are.
When I left Lithuania, I took my childhood with me. It was large and beautiful because my childhood was in the Paradise of Semeniškiai. So, I took those pieces of Paradise with me and I continue to cherish them and sometimes I share them with others.
Dear Jonas, please make a wish for the people of Biržai…
Fair winds to the people of Biržai and especially Papilys! From this side of Paradise!
When I continued this interview in the summer of 2018 through emails with Jonas, I asked him why it was often noted that he doesn’t keep in touch with Lithuania. This is how he answered the question:
A person can live in Lithuania and not have any “connections” to Lithuania. Most Lithuanians live that way. They live in their own little corner, street, village and keep on working at what they’ve always worked, and they are happy because “connections” are not important to them. And they will die happy where they were born, grew up, raised their children, voted in elections and so on… Perhaps their lives are/were not one hundred percent happy, but they are normal lives. They live with both feet planted firmly on the ground, their connections are local, almost under their very feet. And it is they who make up the country that is called Lithuania.
But there are others, whose fates/lives are more complicated. Each organized or organically developed group of people has cities, governments and people who control and take care of the whole country in a way that makes everyone happy… And for them, these “others”, the connections to this country called Lithuania, are then more complicated. Fate, or perhaps you may call it God, has given them different lives, responsibilities, work, so that mankind would continue its spiritual and material evolution to the Light and to Heaven, even though that path is full of landmines. But, despite everything, their ties with the country that is called Lithuania are just as strong as those who stand on the black soil in their bare feet; in spite of the fact that those standing barefoot on the black earth, sometimes, or even often, think that those others have lost their “connection” to the soil… Their connections to the country, the land that is called Lithuania, are already on another plane, they are not direct, not the connections of bare feet on the black soil…
The Almighty chose an even more different fate for me. The Almighty decided that my direct ties with the country that is called Lithuania should be cut off and tied me to it with other, more complicated connections, with another body, which is called the World; with different responsibilities, duties, planned by Fate/the Almighty. There is nothing random under the sun. Everything is provided, planned openly, but is absolutely unchangeable. I don’t know why orwhat my “true” purpose in life is, but I do know that everything has a deeper meaning that has not been revealed to me. Everything that I do is directly tied to the place from where I came (from the village of Semeniškiai, from a country called Lithuania) and where I am (in the World).
You ask me, and others have asked me why I “don’t keep in touch” with Lithuania!Jonas Mekas
My connections to the country that is called Lithuania are absolutely non-severable, because they are not in my control. They cannot be severed, because these connections are not on this material earth: fate has given me totally different duties and type of work than my aforementioned group of fellow countrymen of a country that is called Lithuania.
We Lithuanians – but it’s the same with all small nations – we are all inclined to quickly “write off” and cross out of our midst those other countrymen of ours, whom Fate tossed into faraway lands, who become recognized in those other countries and sometimes even in the entireworld, and with their work contribute towards the development of the culture of all of mankind.We look at those countrymen of ours as if they had “cut off ties” with their country. We forget that nations make up one big family and that each nation is only as important in the context ofthe world’s nations, in mankind as much as it contributes to the growth of spirit in the family of nations on its path towards the Light.
Fate threw me out of Semeniškiai without my wishes or plans so that in the land that is called America I would document the lives of Lithuanian emigres, emigrants, the lives of political refugees and their fates on film: WAS THERE A WAR, LOST, LOST, LOST and PARADISE NOT YET LOST.
Fate threw me out of Semeniškiai so that I would later document the details of my childhood in a Lithuanian village in REMINISCENCES OF A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA; Fate threw me out from Semeniškiai that I would later document Lithuania’s period of liberation in the global context in the film LITHUANIA AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE USSR. And Fate threw me out from a village that is called Semeniškiai so that I would write memories through my pain the series SEMENIŠKIŲ IDILĖS that documents more than any other series of poetry fragments of Lithuanian village life, its people, their work, what I went through and how I lived before Fate threw me out into the world.
And everything that I’ve quickly mentioned here are my “unseen”, “non-material” “connections” with a country that is called Lithuania. Connections that tie me to Lithuania and not a week passes by that some Lithuanian embassy or consulate or museum – from Buenos Aires to Tokyo to Seoul to Rome to Toronto – doesn’t ask me to send them those films, those books and so on, because we have so little to show the world about ourselves. These connections are little ones, but they are real, and they look up at a screen and see and know that there is a country that is called Lithuania.
And then you say to me, “Oh, that Jonas Mekas isn’t a Lithuanian any more, he doesn’t maintain any kind of contact with Lithuania… But I smile – let them, let them… They don’t know that my passion for Lithuania is constant. But they don’t need to know that.
My fate, my work, my life is planned by the Omniscient absolutely in the way it needs to be and was planned at the Very Beginning in the place From Where I Came. So, I smile and keep on working. Let them. Let them. I’m still passionate.Jonas Mekas