The James River Film Fest offers a rare gem: the founder and champion of American avant-garde cinema, Jonas Mekas.

But faced with the daunting number of fast-deteriorating rolls of 16mm film on his shelf, Mekas gave up and took a more random approach.

"I just began splicing them together by chance, the way I found them on the shelf," he explains.

The approach works, offering a lyrical homage to Mekas' trademark heightened home-movie style of seeming to shoot from the hip. The images are often jerky with movement or sliced midframe or proudly showing off those inherent confining sprockets that could never quite rein in Mekas or his passion to capture life's moments of rapture. Much like a still photographer, he seeks the defining moment when the present magically becomes the past. Except, of course, Mekas' "snapshots" move.

According to Michael Jones, founder and now co-coordinator of the James River Film Festival, "It's quite a coup to bring Mekas to Richmond. Considered the father of America's avant-garde cinema, we've been trying to get him to come for years."

Now in its ninth year, the James River Fest has enjoyed incredible luck at drawing not just some of the biggest names involved in the art of moving images, but also some of the art form's historically most important figures, as well. From Mekas' fellow avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage to William Wegman to Karen Aqua, the list of past festival guest artists reads like a "who's who" among filmmakers, film historians, animators, video and experimental artists. This year's weeklong festival is no different. Running April 1-7, it includes such guests as Ed Sanders (founder of the '60s folk-rock band "The Fugs") who will discuss the nature of protest in America and perform live with a program of short experimental films; and in ternationally renowned animator Joanna Priestley, who will present a retrospective of her work.

Unabashed by his lack of celebrity, Mekas laughs it off. "In Europe," he says, "I am a filmmaker. In Lithuanian, I am a poet. But in New York, I'm that crank, that archivist who runs the Anthology Film Archives." The Big Apple and the world of avant-garde cinema ensnared Mekas by default: He and his brother Adolfas were headed to Chicago when they emigrated from Lithuania to America in 1949. Supporting themselves with factory work, the two brothers rented a Bolex and began shooting on almost a daily basis. Inspired by the handheld-style freedom expressed by French New Wave filmmakers Truffaut and Goddard, the Mekas brothers spent their free time documenting life and the changing times.

As outspoken as his films are eloquent in their simplicity, Mekas is the first to demystify the "art" of his life's work. "I'm not a filmmaker," he adamantly reiterates to every interviewer, film student and overflowing audience of film buffs. "I don't really make films; I only keep filming. I am a filmer, not a filmmaker."

Jones can testify to Mekas' straightforward approach. When asked if he might like to speak to students," says Jones, "Mekas said, 'No. I have only one thing to tell them, and after I say that, there's nothing else to say.'"

So what is that one compelling statement that speaks for itself? "I tell them to go film," he says. "Don't sit around discussing and debating film technique and theory. Do it. Go film."S


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