Jonas Mekas took his first photograph in Lithuania as a boy, documenting Russia’s occupation of his homeland, only to have the film torn from his camera by a suspicious solider and trodden into the dirt. An extract from his 1991 memoir I Had Nowhere to Go, this is just one of several anecdotes relayed to Scottish director Douglas Gordon for his documentary of the same name — the first in a series, perhaps, as this film only charts Mekas’ early experiences of war-torn Europe and his emigration to America. There is much more material where that came for, and according to the director a considerable amount has already been recorded.

There is little mention of Mekas’ work as a celebrated artist or his legacy as the so-called godfather of American avant-garde in Gordon’s I Had Nowhere to Go, or indeed context of any kind. Taken in isolation many of Mekas’ stories could have come from any number of innocent civilians caught up in the chaos of World War II and forced to abandon the world they once knew. Mekas may not have fought — he describes himself as an apostate rather than an absconder: “This was not my war; I am a poet” — but his experiences were still far from unique. That said, he still distinguishes himself as an interesting individual and an engaging storyteller; his way of articulating his various adventures is both evocative and moving — his Lithuanian accent still tethering him to a home he has long since departed.

I Had Nowhere to GoIt’s a good thing too, for aside from Mekas’ admittedly expressive tones and impressive memory I Had Nowhere to Go doesn’t have a whole lot else to offer. Apart from an exceptionally short fragment of footage of the artist playing the accordion all of this information is relayed via voice track with only Foley recordings to bring his assertions to life. There are flashes of imagery consistent with the theme of displacement — from animals in limbo at Berlin Zoo to vegetables plucked from the ground in preparation for cooking — but this does less to augment one’s cinematic experience than it does to keep the audience awake and attentive. The recordings of explosions may, apparently, cover the entire spectrum of wartime munitions, but to anyone drifting in and out of consciousness they represent little more than loud noises.

It’s an incredibly odd decision to record in sound alone, particularly given the film’s subject — an artist who introduces himself with a story about his first photograph and regularly defies belief or easy understanding. He’s such a vivid and vivacious Lithuanian-American icon that words alone cannot begin to do him justice, regardless of how descriptive or dynamic an orator he might be. Lose the haphazard imagery and I Had Nowhere to Go could have easily been a radio play or a podcast; introduce archive footage or talking heads and it could have made for a fascinating documentary. Without either the conviction to sacrifice picture altogether or the context provided by the visual dimension I Had Nowhere to Go becomes a confused and confusing compromise. It is undeniably dramatic, but it could hardly be described as cinematic.

There is of course a place for such an original production as I Had Nowhere to Go on the festival circuit, and indeed there is a pronounced dearth of franchises of any kind in most festival programmes, but should Gordon go on to release the rest of his recording in future instalments he might do well to commit to his chosen medium. For divorced from the visual world Mekas doesn’t just sound displaced, but squandered.