Latam Booklook: 'I had nowhere to go' by Jonas Mekas

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In the diary of his exile across Europe to reach America, Mekas gestates the intimate tone he would later develop in his films

Latam Booklook: 'I had nowhere to go' by Jonas Mekas

What is it about?

Jonas Mekas, of Lithuanian origin, edited and wrote some texts against the Soviet regime and the Nazi invasion of his country in his adolescence. After his typewriter was stolen and accidentally seized by the military, young Mekas must go into exile from his country, along with his brother Adolfas, so as not to be captured by the government with just one wise advice from his uncle: "Get out of here, discover the western world."

Leer en español: Latam Booklook: 'Ningún lugar adonde ir' de Jonas Mekas

With this in mind and false student visas, they take a train to Vienna that never reaches its destination, as German officers divert it to a forced labor camp. Thus begins the uncertain journey of the future filmmaker, during which he lives the contradictions of exile: the uprooting and the nostalgia for the homeland.

I had nowhere to go, edited by the Argentinean publisher Caja Negra and translated by Leonel Livchits, is Mekas's diary during the previous trip that starts from Lithuania in 1944 until the first years of his life as an immigrant in the Americas of the years fifty.

In that time, he goes through forced labor camps, in which he produces machinery for the Nazi army; for refugee camps in which he must share with exiles from all countries and his country, who make him happy and angry; for philosophy studies at the University of Mainz, his only escape to the refugee reality several hours away from his passing home. Finally, he decides to migrate with his brother to the United States, to Chicago, in theory, although after spending a few days in New York he stays there after falling in love with the city.

The entries in his diary speak, not only of the prisoners he knows and the realities of the war but also of his vision of art, how the exile has affected him, how he does not support his Lithuanian compatriots with his nostalgia regionalist, among other things.

Ultimately, it is a newspaper that evidence, through personal experience, the change not only of its writer but of a whole post-war generation that had to leave their home in search of new experiences or escaping the authoritarian regimes that the censored. "I'm going through disturbing changes. / Maybe it's my mind, maybe it's my nerves. / There is little firm ground under my feet. / Everything is moving," writes Mekas in one of the poems inserted in the middle of the diary.


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Who wrote it?

From peasant and prisoner of war to filmmaker and recognized poet in the artistic circles of New York, Jonas Mekas (December 23, 1923 - January 23, 2019) went through the most various trades. After learning technical aspects of camera management in a job as a messenger for a photography company, Mekas co-founded the magazine Film Culture, a seminal publication in the film criticism of avant-garde films, which would have its peak during the 60s and 70s.

He also had a column in the Village Voice and founded the Anthology Film Archives, perhaps the world's largest experimental and avant-garde film library. Thanks to his critical and cinematographic exercise, this Lithuanian immigrant was part of the entire 60s countercultural movement in the company of artists such as Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Salvador Dalí, George Maciunas, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.

His films are known mainly for being pioneers in the so-called Diary-movies, a series of homemade recordings that Mekas accumulated over the years and little by little he was editing in films. Through these, he achieved a particular way of showing intimacy, of the mechanisms used so that the viewer could feel the passing of time and the life of a person.

This was how he created a poetic tone that made home videos of his family and friends in film works. As he says in one of his most recognized films, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), "I'm not a filmmaker, I'm just a recorder"; his life was to make films, and it was his life that was captured in his visual work.

Read also: Latam Booklook: "Black ball" by Mario Bellatin and Liniers

Do I read it or not?

The reading of I had nowhere to go, is not only a witness of the horrors of war and the effect it has on the entire population, whether soldier, peasant or vendor, but also are the first steps in the discovery of a personal voice.

Through the diary entries, we see how the young Mekas faces situations of labor exploitation, overpopulation of refugee camps, material precariousness, in which the most instinctive of the human being, as the search for food and shelter, they go on air. More importantly, we see how this artist in gestation begins to reflect on what is happening around him and, little by little, he converts those experiences of suffering into a motor for his intimate artistic voice, a forerunner of what he would later develop in his diary-movies.

The aspect that most struck me about this transition between war and a new 'home' is the ambivalence with which it expressed the effects of exile. On the one hand, there are moments when he feels how the uprooting slowly takes root in his soul, as when he hears the cries of his countrymen and only feels sorry for them that they can not appreciate the possibility of exploring the world. On the other hand, it adopts a nostalgic and taciturn tone when remembering its native Lithuania, its idyllic fields and its irretrievable childhood. The sadness of paradise lost.

Therefore, reading it is heartbreaking, we are witnesses of how the writer moves more and more away from his origins, from everything that formed him, from how exile begins to mark his inhabiting the world. It is a journal of initiation in adulthood; they are pages that show the metamorphosis of a Lithuanian peasant to an uprooted artist.


LatinAmerican Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra

Translated from "Latam Booklook: 'Ningún lugar adonde ir' de Jonas Mekas"

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