Underground Film Journal

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas holding a Bolex 16mm camera

Jonas Mekas (Dec. 24, 1922 — Jan. 23, 2019) was the leading advocate for the avant-garde and experimental film scene in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. A prolific "diary" filmmaker, Mekas also helped formed several highly-respected film institutions that are still in existence today.

Born to a family of farmers in Lithuania, Jonas and his brother Adolfas were attempting to flee their home country for Switzerland in 1944, but were instead taken hostage by the Nazis and forced to work in a German labor camp in Elmshorn. A year later, the Mekas brothers were able to escape their German captors and took up residence at two different Displaced Persons camps since they were unable to go home due to fears of being killed by the Soviets.

In 1949, a family friend invited Jonas and Adolfas to work in a Chicago bakery, but upon arriving in New York City on October 28, the brothers decided to stay in Brooklyn.

Almost immediately after arriving in the U.S., the Mekas brothers first rented, then bought a 16mm Bolex camera to make movies and ingratiate themselves into the emerging experimental film scene in NYC, attending screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 series.

With dreams of starting a film institute in America, Jonas began by first publishing the magazine Film Culture in 1955, then becoming the chief film reviewer at the Village Voice newspaper. Although originally unimpressed with American experimental films, Jonas would become enamored of the Beat filmmaking scene — including filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Ron Rice, Robert Frank, and Alfred Leslie — and his writing would inspire countless others to take up making films.

Wanting to turn his words into actions, Jonas would help form the New American Cinema Group, get the Film-makers' Cooperative distribution center up and running, and create the world's first ever "museum of film," the Anthology Film Archives. Both the Coop and the Anthology are still distributing and screening underground films in NYC.

Jonas began his own filmmaking career directing a fictional narrative, Guns of the Trees, but soon turned to focusing exclusively on his "diary" filmmaking, capturing his daily life on film and then, later, on video. Throughout his life, Mekas has edited his diary footage into long, cohesive works such as Walden; Lost, Lost, Lost; As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty; and many more.

Also a prolific written diarist, Jonas's personal writings are collected in three volumes: I Had Nowhere to Go, which covers his life in Europe and first days in America; and I Seem to Live, Vol. 1 and I Seem to Live, Vol 2, both of which are from his life in the U.S.

Some more detail on Jonas's life can be found in the Jonas Mekas Timeline on the Underground Film Journal.

Watch Streaming Films By Jonas Mekas:


A Letter From Greenpoint (2005)
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)
Notes for Jerome (1978)
Lost, Lost, Lost (1976)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971)
Walden (1969)
The Millbrook Report (1966)
The Circus Notebook (1966)
Hare Krishna (1966)
The Brig (1964) (WATCH)
Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1964)
Moires: Dali/Oster Newsreel (1963)
Film Magazine of the Arts (1963)
Rabbitshit Haikus (1962-63)
Guns of the Trees (1961)
100 Glimpses of Salvador Dali (1961-)
Silent Journey (1955)
Circus Notebook (1955)
Grand Street (1953)


1961: New American Cinema At The Spoleto Festival

According to Jonas Mekas‘s diaries, on May 17, 1961 he was contacted by Jerome Hill about the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Hill had convinced the festival’s organizer, Gian Carlo Menotti, to include a section on the New American Cinema for that year’s edition to be held in June and July. Mekas declined to participate, as […]

The Jonas Mekas Timeline: 1922 – 1974

Jonas Mekas (1922 – 2019) accomplished much in his long life. And that’s not just in the realm of underground film! Mekas practically lived a lifetime under Nazi rule before reluctantly coming to the United States in 1949. At the Underground Film Journal, we love our timelines, so we’ve decided to maintain this list of […]

1958 Movie Journal: Jonas Mekas’ First Columns

The November 12, 1958 edition of The Village Voice featured the first installment of the column “Movie Journal” by Jonas Mekas. “Movie Journal” would become what the Underground Film Journal would argue was the most significant organizing tool of avant-garde cinema created by Jonas, even more so than the Film-makers’ Cooperative and the Anthology Film […]

1954: First Issue of Film Culture Is Published

In December 1954, Jonas Mekas and his brother Adolfas published the first issue of Film Culture magazine. Initially hostile to American avant-garde filmmaking, the magazine eventually evolved into the avant-garde’s greatest champion in print.

Movie Journal: Rise of the “Underground”

Jonas Mekas’s “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice was the main organ promoting experimental and avant-garde cinema in the early 1960s. A survey of the column from that time period has shown that Mekas did not use the term “underground film” very frequently.

The Origin Of “Underground Film”

One of filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek’s most famous articles is “The Cinema Delimina” published in the Summer 1961 edition of Film Quarterly (vol. XIV no. 4), in which he is the first person to use the term “underground” to refer to what was then mostly referred to as “experimental cinema.”

The (Almost) Trial of Shirley Clarke

In 1961, Shirley Clarke finished directing her first feature film and debuted The Connection at the Cannes Film Festival to much acclaim. The New York State Board of Education’s motion picture division banned the film from screening in the state.

Robert Beck Memorial Cinema: January — May Screenings, 1999

Continuing into 1999 at the Collective Unconscious theater space in NYC, the RBMC — co-programmed by Brian L. Frye and Bradley Eros — went on hiatus for the first week of the year, but resumed on January 12. Below is a list of screenings from then until a May 18 event that celebrated the RBMC’s first full year of existence.

Anthology Film Archives: The First Screenings, 1970

After years of planning, the Anthology Film Archives first opened its doors in New York City towards the end of 1970. That opening came with great interest and fascination of how the world’s first “museum of film” was going to operate like no other theater before it.