Tribeca Festival International Narrative Competition
Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Viesturs Kairiss
Writer: Viesturs Kairiss, Co-writers Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman
Cast: K?rlis Arnolds Avots, Alise Dzene, Sandis Runge, Baiba Broka, Aleksas Kazanavi?ius, Juhan Ulfsak
Screened at: Critics’ link, NY, 4/18/22
Opens: June 10th, 2022
Circumstances often don’t allow for the pursuit of one’s true passion. All the work and planning in the world cannot account for the timing of potentially unrelated events that then throw carefully-formulated itineraries into complete chaos. The outbreak of a war is certainly capable of derailing what someone has set out to do for themselves, and even if they are not personally impacted, the opportunities they are able to access to may change drastically, as may their own livelihood. January explores the course of one young filmmaker’s life in 1991 Latvia.
Jazis (K?rlis Arnolds Avots) is the film’s protagonist, eagerly studying the auteurs who most inspire him and delighting in the joy of a partner, Anna (Alise Danovska), who shares his same enthusiasm for the art form. His camera becomes an important weapon to document what is happening when Soviet forces overtake the country, and what had previously been political conversation at the dinner table is now something inescapable that will forever change the landscape of the world he knows and will force him to abandon what he so wants to serve in the army.
January is a film that follows its character’s journey and constantly transforms with it, capturing the spirit of the times. At first, Jazis is able to focus on what matters most to him, which involves plenty of discussion of film and a true focus on learning as much as possible so that he can become a great filmmaker. As events unfold, he is sucked into the miserable reality around him, hopeless to change what is happening and equipped only with a tool to keep a record of what is going on so there might later be some hope of pursuing justice. It’s not the film he set out to make, but he is drawn to what interests him, and it’s impossible to not have a stake in something that is affecting his livelihood.
This film, which comes from director Viesturs Kairiss, mixes fictional scenes filmed on Super 8 with footage of real events, an effective strategy to immerse audiences in a mindset that might feel foreign and distant to them even though it all happened just three decades ago. As the film goes on, it becomes so intensely enmeshed in its surroundings that it feels hard to break free from it. Though done on a much smaller and more intimate scale, it’s reminiscent of the journey undertaken in 1917 where everywhere is suddenly a battlefield and it’s difficult to look away.
January is about a particular event in the history of Latvia that has not been forgotten in the relatively short stretch of time since it played out. Like other recent films such as Quo Vadis, Aida?, it shares a national tragedy that has been documented extensively yet will still undoubtedly be surprising to many around the world. Its mere existence serves as an important rallying cry to pay tribute to the narratives of all nations and peoples and to understand how something happened and could easily happen again, especially if people don’t discuss it.
As much as it has a political message, January is ultimately about Jazis and the love he has for the art of film. That he enjoys the works of Americans like Jim Jarmusch as much as Europeans like Ingmar Bergman speaks to the way in which the film industry has a global reach. Jazis might otherwise have absolutely nothing in common with a viewer his age watching the film, but there is a relatability that comes through his interests. Kairiss obviously has his own reverence for cinematic influences, and that shows both in his filmmaking style and the way in which filmmaking itself figures so much into the content of his story.
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+