Born in the Lithuanian village of Semeniškiai in 1922, the legendary experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas moved to the United States at the age of 27. It was in America that he built his prominent career as a director, programmer, and trailblazer of avant-garde cinema, rubbing shoulders with New York’s biggest artists — Andy Warhol, Nico, and Yoko Ono.
Yet, with his films Mekas has always returned to his early life and his wartime experiences in Europe: a failed escape from Lithuania that he and his brother Adolfas attempted in 1944, the eight months they spent in a German labour camp, and four more years in displaced persons camps. After eventually leaving for the US in 1949, they could not communicate with their family, who were put under surveillance by the Soviets; it was in the early 1970s, when Mekas’ film work was accepted as “anti-capitalist” in the USSR, that he was given a chance to return home.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) shows Jonas and Adolfas Mekas’ first homecoming to their village after two and a half decades of living away. Divided into three parts, the film opens with footage of 50s Brooklyn — as if suggesting that the journey back home starts as soon as you leave. The second part, titled “100 Glimpses of Lithuania, 1971”, is a moving documentation of a cheerful family reunion that brings together all generations of the Mekas clan. “You don’t really see how Lithuania is today,” the filmmaker explained in a past interview, about his choice to focus solely on his family, rather than show how the country had changed during that time. “You see [Lithuania] only through the memories of a displaced person returning home for the first time in 25 years.”
After a brief but incredibly powerful “Parenthesis” sequence, in which the brothers revisit Hamburg, where they were imprisoned in a labour camp, the filmmaker travels to Austria, to be reunited with his friends and fellow artists: Peter Kubelka, Hermann Nitsch, and others.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is a prime example of the diaristic film genre, pioneered by Mekas. It tells a deeply personal story both through its beautifully-structured visuals and the voiceover narration, where the director freely talks about the people and places we see through his lens, and reflects on his memories and impressions. Without attempting to analyse the historical events of the 20th century, the film nonetheless shows the disastrous effects of war, genocide, and totalitarianism, on whole generations of Eastern Europeans. At the same time, the film also tells a story of migration, the longing for home, and the impossibility of ever truly returning to it.