In the 98 minutes of “I Had Nowhere to Go: Portrait of a Displaced Person,” there are about 10 minutes of visuals. The rest of the experience takes place on a black screen as accompanying audio tracks doing the legwork. It’s a bold gamble by director and veteran artist Douglas Gordon that doesn’t always pay off, but a big part of the experience stems from the ever-engaging storytelling at its center. Narrated by legendary avant-garde film diarist Jonas Mekas, now 93 and livelier than ever as he recollects his wartime experiences, “I Had Nowhere to Go” attempts to capture the journeys of a man known for capturing images through their absence. Though not always the sum of its compelling ingredients, “I Had Nowhere to Go” applies an appropriate degree of cinematic innovation to one of the medium’s greatest advocates.
Gordon is best known for his 1993 installation piece “24 Hour Psycho,” a slo-mo treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock film that prolonged it to 24 hours. While that project deconstructed moving images, here Gordon brings a similar magnifying-glass approach to memory, paring it down to its essence.
Based on Mekas’ 1991 memoir, the film—or, more accurately, the experience—begins with the wizened Mekas recalling the first time he captured an image on film, photographing Russian tanks rolling into Lithuania in 1940. Shooting on a camera that’s promptly stomped to bits by a Soviet officer, the aspiring poet runs for his life. That fragile aspect of capturing the real world would remain a critical aspect of Mekas’ own film diaries, from the sprawling “Walden” to “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania,” which strings together intimate moments from his life. While Mekas’ work overflows with images, “I Had Nowhere to Go” explores what happens when they’re taken away. The result is an immersive experience that demands attentive viewers get lost in the dark and latch on to Mekas’ words for guidance.
Fortunately, he’s a formidable narrator, and Gordon selects appropriately vivid passages to enhance the process. Mekas recounts his wanderings through Europe, offering colorful descriptions of small communities and the dusty rubble that they devolve into later on. He revisits the tedium of his daily struggles and sharply renounces claims that his decision to flee Europe made him a traitor. “This was not my war,” he proclaims. “I am a poet.” And just as tidbits of prose can carry broader implications, Gordon’s minimalist visuals underscore the impression of Mekas’ memories coming to life. As he describes seeing the New York City skyline at night, the screen slowly turns bright red; on another occasion, a gorilla picks away at its toes while Mekas talks about feeling trapped by his surroundings.
Some of these cutaways work more effectively than others, but “I Had Nowhere to Go” generates its deepest power from an astonishing soundscape. Mekas’ voice usually comes through in crisp declarations, but at other times it fades or echoes as the memories grow more cluttered and complex. Gordon’s technique gets inside the notion of a displaced person by crafting that sense of displacement in canny audiovisual terms.
At times, it’s a masterful device. The movie’s strongest moment revolves around Mekas recalling a series of air raids. There’s nothing more jarring than the sound of bombs erupting in a completely dark room, particularly as part of a series; in the ensuing dread of the silence that follows each blast, one must wonder if another sudden explosion will follow at any moment.
Despite the dark overtones — literally and otherwise — “I Had Nowhere to Go” often moves along at a reasonable clip, never losing touch with Mekas’ endearing persona. He even offers some levity, which should come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the smiling, harmonica-playing figure at the center of Mekas’ own films. Finding himself stuck with a drab factory job, he launches a ferocious anti-capitalist screed, then laughs off the situations when he gets fired. Later, he brings us into his odd relationship to an African American coworker, where he fakes a girlfriend for the sake of conversation. In another striking instance, he harmonizes to himself as wartime sounds echo in the background.
Gordon occasionally places too much emphasis on a single motif, overextending his heady conceit. Minutes drag by as he sticks with the image of a lazy orangutan, the central figure of a Mekas memory in which he visits a bombed-out zoo. At first a compelling illustration, it eventually becomes a weary symbol as it just sits onscreen.
But despite the repetitiveness of a few sequences, “I Had Nowhere to Go” retains a profound edge. It’s a survival story as you’ve never seen it before—perceptive, surprising and ultimately celebratory as Mekas finds his way to the second half of the 20th century. We’re right there with him.
“I Had Nowhere to Go” premiered at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. No distribution plans are currently in place.