The new publication brings together a selection of letters from the filmmaker and his brother Adolfas Mekas to the most important person in their lives: their mother
When Jonas Mekas died in 2019, aged 96, he left behind a monumental legacy. Widely recognised as the “godfather of American avant-garde cinema”, the auteur and poet’s boundary-breaking works propelled the New American Cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s to brave and brilliant new heights. This legacy is not all Mekas left behind though: before he died, he secretly organised several book projects to be published after his death. The most recent of these, Letters Home, is perhaps the most personal of them all – a collection of handwritten letters the filmmaker and his brother Adolfas Mekas sent from America to their mother in Lithuania.
Born in Semeniškiai, the Mekas brothers fled war-torn Europe for New York in 1949, following eight years in slave labour camps in Nazi Germany. They couldn’t return to their native Lithuania out of fear of persecution, as both had been part of underground resistance movements against the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Across the pond, New York was on the precipice of a cultural and artistic revolution, and, upon their arrival, the brothers quickly began to record life around them on a Bolex film camera. Here, in the city, they found belonging amid Manhattan’s burgeoning arts community.
During the 50s and 60s, they became friends and collaborators with revolutionary minds like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and Maya Deren. This time of intense creativity would see the brothers become cultural figureheads themselves, changing the face of cinema forever with an outpouring of trailblazing works, such Jonas Mekas’ Walden (1969), Lost, Lost, Lost (1975), and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). Among their manifold contributions, the brothers founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in 1964, which – now known as the Anthology Film Archives – continues today as one of the world’s largest and most significant archives of avant-garde film.
The brothers wrote to their mother religiously throughout the decades, and Letters Home tenderly lays out these personal written correspondence to be read by the world. Offering a moving insight into familial love and the ability of letters to bridge emotional, geopolitical, and cultural distances, the book offers an intimate portrait of the Mekas brothers and the extraordinary story of their lives.
During this time, Jonas Mekas writes that he felt shaped by the jarring contrast between the two worlds of Eastern Europe and America. “After the war there was a conference in Yalta where the Eastern European countries were divided between France, the United States, England and the Soviet Union like cake,” Mekas said. “At that point, I felt totally disappointed with western civilisation; I was nowhere. But then when we landed in New York, in Brooklyn, suddenly everything was alive and free. You could buy ... oranges! And you could see anything, it was like the sun began to shine. It was then that I began to put the pieces of myself together.”
For curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist, the book highlights the special relationship between writing and memory, as well as offering an insight into the diaristic film style Mekas became famous for. “This collection of letters from Adolfas and Jonas Mekas shows the importance of writing as a way of memory-making,” he says. “The intimate insight these letters provide are wonderful documents of their time as well as marks of the dying art of letter writing.”
The curator adds that the book celebrates the importance of connection and living in the moment. “As Jonas once told me: ‘The future will be determined by the present moment; this moment, this very second, will determine the next moment.’ So let us make sure to remember this present moment as it was, in part, determined by the moments described by Adolfas and Jonas Mekas in their wonderful letters.”
Letters Home is published by Passport and is out now.