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3am Interview

JM: My movies are very linear. My movies are not jumping around. Let's face it. Time goes, my life continues, my friends are all around me, it's part of my life, people that I meet everyday and then I film my life. My friends. My films are horizontal. There is past, there is present. Of course I deal always with the present moment and life is continuing. There is no jumping around. Only when you make a film where you write a script or you have it in your head, an idea that you proceed to illustrate can you jump around. And whether it be connected with Hitchcock or Jarmush that's how it is. But in real life film, I am the one who is connecting. But what I filmed yesterday might have no connection with what I might be shooting today. But it's the same person. The same strings that are connecting them all. So it might look like they're jumping but I have to do something with all of them. I'm the string. So they're linear on one level and totally unlinear on another.

3AM: So when you set off, do you know where it's going to end up?

JM: No. Because I never set off. I'm always here. This very moment when I'm talking to you I can pull out my camera, and now I'm actually videotaping you. And now I stop. And I have no idea when I'll be starting the video camera again. And time will pass. And then I will pick up my camera again. It will be actuality. A real moment. Then and now. Here and now. There is never a plan. I might be in a different place and I might not want to film anything until tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning on my train to Paris. Then I might be snapping the images of the tube!

There is no plan. There is no telling when I will want to film. The reason why I want to tape any given moment I never know the reason. For anything we do, there are no great answers. Now I'm collecting material. When I was putting together my last film which was shown here, I think at the last London Film Festival, I dealt with 25 years of material. Filming took place over that period and now I'm facing this footage, this thirty hours of footage, let's say, I'm looking at it and I'm beginning to reduce it, I'm dealing with film footage, not with real life anymore. I was facing life at the moment I was recording with my camera, but now I'm facing the footage, so I'm looking at it and I'm facing my memories that that footage reminds me of.

I look at it and I remember most of the time the exact moment, some of it has already been warped by time, so I begin to work back from the beginning, to structure it now, what I feel still has meaning for me. When I feel that I really manage to get to the essence of the situation, that I would like to share it with others, and it would not bore others, I am happy to see it again and again. And I have a lot of footage where I consider I failed to get to the essence of the situation: it's filmed in a boring way and it will bore me and it will bore other people and I cut it out. So from that thirty hours I ended up with five hours. I eliminated. I eliminated. I eliminated. And I ended up with four hours and forty-eight minutes actually!

3AM: That's a lot longer than the conventional Hollywood film.

JM: Oh yes. But that's because they have a script and they have a story to tell in that time. I have no script. The story is me and the people around me. It's there, it's real life and there is no other. I'm not carrying any other story. There is no suspense. There is no violence. There is no drama. There is no violence because I am not interested in it. I'm interested in the celebration of life. I'm leaving violence to others. I consider there's too much focus on abnormality, violence, ugliness and anger. I consider that it's all been well covered, maybe too much, by the others. It just does not interest me.

What interests me are the moments of joy, celebration when people get together. They eat, they drink, they sing, be it in nature or at home. I'm interested in that. Being together, and the innocence that you find in children, I'm interested in children before they get corrupted, before they enter maturity and the grown-up world. Yes, so there are certain areas of human life -- daily life, insignificant, unnoticeable activities -- that I'm interested in. Not in those wild and noisy and risible activities that have been very well covered by others.

3AM: Living in New York with September 11th happening there, you must have thoughts about that.

JM: I filmed the building collapse. I think temporarily New York slowed down. People became more serious. More meditative. Not so much the take-it-easy ethos, it was more like a cloud of seriousness had descended on New York. But when I left it a couple of days ago New York had returned more or less to its original state. Except that since then people are a little bit more interested in the question: why did it happen? Why do countries hate America? What can the reason be? This is emerging slowly. It's not there yet but I think it is coming as time passes. So it's very educational. I think it's very good. The only bad thing I consider is the Israel and Palestine situation where I can't say "Israel" because in America there is no Israel there are only Jews! And the Jews in America are in many important places and have contacts with many important people and they are pressurising the Senators and the United States government, they have very big power. So the United States are supporting only Israel not Palestine, which I consider as criminal, because of what Israel is doing to Palestine.

I mean, you should see what Israel is doing to Palestine. How can anyone accept the situation? Ok so today, let's say, a Palestinian lives in this house and an Israeli comes in and says "Would you sell your house to me?" and the Palestinian says, "No, why would I sell my house to you? I like my house. This is my house." But then the Israeli goes and gets the army and gets the Palestinian out. How can anyone accept that situation? It's barbaric. It's criminal. I cannot understand how you can treat another human being as being lower than yourself. You know, I have the right to be independent but I'll decide whether he has the right to be independent or not! It's slavery. So at this point, Palestinians are put in the position of slaves to the Israelis. Thanks to the United States. What can I say?

I'm not following the politics in America very closely. Just the Israeli-Palestine situation a little bit. In the sixties I was not following the artists and musicians in the Protest Movement very much. The sixties in the United States, there were two streams. One was the artists. It was very inventive, a lot of activity, a very intense period in the arts. And then there was another stream interested in the various liberation movements. Some artists were supporting them, but usually it was a separate group of young people who protested against Vietnam or whatever. I was more involved in the art side. I was so busy with cinema and related activities. We had our own local politics. We had to establish our distribution networks, we had to create our own republic within a republic of commercial cinemas. We had to establish like a Palestinian set up, an alternative. So I was very busy. I had no time for Vietnam. I knew others were doing that. I went on some of the marches, I knew some of the people, but I had no time for that. And I did not really understand because I'm not really an American. I really consider myself a New Yorker. I have lived now for 52 years in New York and I like New York, I understand New York, but I don't understand America. So I look from the outside and I think "Ah ha, so that's what they're doing!" But I don't understand why they are doing it.

3AM: Do you feel at all European?

JM: No. I don't belong really anywhere. New York because I have my current life there. All my friends are there. And many, many of my friends are European. From Vienna or Paris. Some of my best friends are from Europe. So I am very much from Europe. My work -- what makes your life is what you actually do -- is in New York. What I can say definitely is that I am not an American.

3AM: How has your archive work effected your own work in film?

JM: Everything effects everything else. First I made films. Then I started meeting filmmakers and seeing their films. It's in my nature that when I see something I like, I want to exchange it. I want others to see it. I want my friends to see it. I get full of excitement. Anyone who reads a great poem wants to tell it to one's friends. That's what happened with these films. Then these films started disintegrating. Some people wanted to see them in other cities. But nobody wanted to distribute them. And so they were not available in these other places. So I had to establish a film distribution centre, a filmmakers cooperative -- the London Filmmakers' Cooperative was based on that also! Then I had friends who wanted to say something about those films and they had nowhere to say these things. So I had to start a film culture magazine. Then the next step was with the films of the thirties and forties. The avant-garde. That period. They were disappearing. Disintegrating. We had to preserve them. We had to start some quality film archive in order to preserve these films.

So everything I did was a necessity, everything is connected. I haven't done anything in my life unless there was a real need. And if someone else does this, I don't want to have anything to do with it, because it's done already. Someone else is doing the work, so thank you: keep doing it! And I can sit on the bank of a river and look as the water flows by! Not that that's happened yet! I get very easily involved. Many films have inspired me, music, books, poems -- everything inspires me. For eighteen years I had a big column in the Village Voice. People they come to me and they say things like: "How come you are defending the cinema of Andy Warhol?" when he makes Sleep and everyone was attacking him. And they say "Oh you were a hothead then!" Now what I say to them is, "No, that wasn't the reason".

The reason was that I knew the history of cinema very, very well. I have seen every film that has opened, every one no matter what kind of film. So when I saw Andy Warhol's Sleep I knew that it was not like anything else. And I had to defend it and point it out to everybody: this is something new and different and exciting. Because of my knowledge of cinema I knew the value of it.

3AM: Do you write poetry in the same way as you make films? Out of necessity?

JM: Yes. There have been different periods. A lyrical period, but the first period was a series of idyllic poems based on the seasons of the year, mainly based on a Lithuanian village, describing what people do, very down to earth, very documentary kind of poetry. Not lyrical at all. Then followed the lyrical period, very different. I have six or seven books of poetry.

3AM: Would you call yourself a poet?

JM: Unfortunately, I am. All my poetry is in Lithuanian. There have been translations. Now I have actually one book in English. It is again not lyrical, it's very documentary. I mention the fact that my poetry is in Lithuanian because to Lithuanians I am nothing but a poet! They do not know my film work. To the rest of the world I am a filmmaker. But not in Lithuania!

3AM: You were going to be a baker in Chicago…

JM: When I came to the United States I had to go to Chicago. That was my destination. But then we came by boat with my brother and we landed in New York. And right there, on pier 21 or whatever, we looked at Manhattan and we said, "We are in Manhattan, we are in New York. Wouldn't it be stupid to go to Chicago?" We stayed in New York, and never went to Chicago. Of course, had we gone to Chicago we would have been very good bakers! I am in exile from Lithuania though because I could not return. I had to rest my roots somewhere else. But now, that's already past. Now I am in a different life. A different century even. Somewhere else. I don't live in the past. I'm always in the present moment.

3AM: You like Tarkovsky?

JM: No. To me his cinema is heavy. It's always wallowing in the past and is so heavy and me and my friends are always saying that we hope that Russian cinema will free itself of Tarkovsky and begin to fly. Because it is so heavy. Much of East European cinema is much too heavy. The acting styles are so outdated and the plots too, the people are still too upset with things that are not important to humanity. So why stay on these things? Move forward. Stop obsessing about the past.

3AM: Your future?

JM: You will see my video work. This will be very long, maybe twenty hours long. I have 900 hours of video that I've done since 1987. I'm beginning to organise it. I have no idea when it will be done. Also I have a lot of footage of my travels. I want to do one of my travel films. Then I have three or four books. All my written diaries. There are piles and piles of the written diaries. Of the last forty years. It is mind-boggling! I have only finished organising three years of those so far: 1950, 1951 and 1961. I still have exactly forty years to go, and each year takes me about two months to prepare. It is mind-boggling.

3AM: I read somewhere that you thought cinema was finished because of video and new technology superseding it.

JM: No, cinema is not finished. There is still a lot of activity at the moment. Cinema will die, not from the roots, not from the bottom where it's 8 mm but will start dying from the top -- 70, 75 mm. They are susceptible to the new technologies. 16mm and 8mm will remain for a good number of years. That is still the most exciting thing happening. The most exciting visual images I have seen come from the 8mm film, super 8 mm filmmakers. No one takes them seriously so they can fool around and take chances and touch totally unexplored areas of life and images. It is very exciting.

3AM: You also said that no one showed you Rimbaud. You found him when you needed him. You're not worried about audiences: you reckon when they'll find you when they need you.

JM: Yes. The mass audience is always with the bread and circus. I don't worry.

3AM: This is just my personal interest: Bob Dylan made some films. What do you think of them?

JM: Yes, I would like to take another look. I saw them long ago. They were collages. A little bit confusing. They were ok. You see, he never really did it all himself. He always had someone with him. And those others, they always had some avant-garde pretensions. So they always make pretentious avant-garde films. If he had done everything himself they would have been more innocent, more like him. But there was always somebody interfering, doing editing, camera and everything. So they are not totally Bob Dylan. They're ok. They contain a lot of Bob Dylan and I like Bob Dylan so I'm very kind to Bob Dylan film. But the avant-garde pretension is what I don't like.

3AM: Are there people working today that you like?

JM: Yes, today, in New York, there are many young people from various countries. From Moscow. From Tokyo. From Ireland. Dublin. Paris. They come from Lithuania. A group -- and they're really young, between 19 and 30. Students. They come and they see films and they end up making films. There's a lot. New showcases coming up. They meet. They exchange. They travel. They send their programmes to Petrograd, all over. There is a lot of activity at that level. And most of them are working in super 8. Some 16. But none of them are using 35. That's expensive. Super 8 is still available and very cheap. So that's my family. These are my friends. And they're here now, in London. The man with the camera, Ben, he is, I don't know, 20 and he's here in London. And there's Pete there, from Paris. Wherever I go I meet this circle of young filmmakers. The young wing of cinema. I'm very positive about things.


Jonas Mekas (b. Lithuania, 1922) graduated from college in 1944. Two months later, he was sent to a labor camp near Hamburg as a Nazi POW. After emigrating to the US, he turned to cinema because his grasp of English was insufficient to become a writer in his new homeland. In the 50s, he started a film column at the Village Voice, launched Film Culture magazine (1955) before founding the Filmmaker's Co-op in 1962. The rest is history...

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