Filmmaking in the footsteps of Jonas Mekas

Young filmmakers take inspiration from the ‘godfather of the avant-garde’ to make their own films on analogue equipment.

David Edgar , Stuart Heaney
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Ice Cream and Dancing by T.K. Roberts

When our two-month Jonas Mekas season kicked off in early December last year with the man himself onstage in NFT1, it wasn’t just long-devoted fans and acolytes in the jam-packed audience, hanging onto his every word. A new generation of young, eager artists were along for the ride, there to take notes from the filmmaker often referred to as the ‘godfather of the avant-garde’, who pioneered the diary film through his intensely personal works such as Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

Alongside the rich survey of Mekas’ work at BFI Southbank, and the exhibition over at the Serpentine Gallery that showcased the diversity of his artistic output and a brand new work, an exciting project bubbled away: The Jonas Mekas Diary Film Workshops.

The BFI and Serpentine had teamed up with no.w.here – an artist filmmakers co-operative – to run a project that would introduce young artists to Mekas’ work, and to provide the opportunity to respond through their own creative practice.

Control by Jaha Browne and Katie Soper

Working with no.w.here proved crucial. Though many had some experience working with moving image, none of the participants (drawn largely from the University of the Arts London, as well as youth groups affiliated with the Serpentine) had any experience working with analogue film. no.w.here, formed in 2004 and based in Tower Hamlets, possesses equipment (and expertise) not available anywhere else in the UK, and is among a dwindling number of organisations in the world that can provide access to and training in working with analogue film.

Their work is invaluable in passing on skills and knowledge to a new generation. The focus was on diary filmmaking, a style of personalised cinema in which actual events in the life of the filmmaker are documented in a quasi-documentary mode, but are more openly subjective and impressionistic, more poetic.

New York-based Lithuanian Jonas Mekas is the leading exponent of this cinematic form. After watching Mekas’s films through the BFI film programme and the Serpentine’s exhibition, and meeting with the filmmaker himself during his stay, the young workshop participants set out to make their own diary films.

Untitled by Aaron Hanaphy

In practical sessions, hosted by no.w.here in Bethnal Green, they emulated Mekas’s approach (if not his exact style) to create a poetic record of moments in their own lives, and of their families, while learning how to shoot on 16mm film using a Bolex H16, the camera used by Jonas for nearly 40 years. The Bolex is a camera renowned for its myriad functions, enabling multiple creative possibilities for shooting spontaneous effects in-camera.

Following the practical filmmaking sessions, the students dispersed for several weeks, and diligently worked to craft the material they had shot into a final piece. Their footage had been transferred onto a digital format, enabling the students to engage in a creative, playful and incredibly fruitful period of bedroom editing on humble domestic computers over several weeks.

And so the raft of hugely impressive completed films, screened at the BFI in January, pay testament not only to the unique beauty of analogue film, but to the strengths of digital. They also show that the diary film mode that Mekas pioneered remains incredibly powerful; these young artists’ films range enormously in their tone and form, reflecting the personalities of their authors and demonstrating the vast potential of film for instinctive, highly personal creative expression.

See the workshop in action

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