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Review: January


- Love and coming of age are interrupted by harsh reality in Viesturs Kairišs’ evocative period piece, which has just won Best International Narrative Feature at Tribeca

Review: January
Karlis Arnolds Avots in January

Set in 1991, January [+see also:
film profile
by veteran Latvian director Viesturs Kairišs is ostensibly a coming-of-age story. However, the film – which premiered in Tribeca’s International Narrative Competition and won the main prize (see the news) – is also an examination of a tumultuous time in history, as it focuses on Latvia’s move for independence that was met with violent resistance, even as the USSR collapsed under its own weight. The film also serves as a paean to those who were there to document it.

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January begins with 19-year-old Jazis (Karlis Arnolds Avots) shooting footage of the Russian secret police who have taken over the state Press House to stop the occupants publishing any more assertions that Latvia is an independent state. Despite the danger he puts himself in, Jazis still remains rather apolitical – his filming of the police is as much an act of teenage insouciance as it is earnest activism – and spends his day at the arts academy.

There, he meets Anna (Alise Dzene), and they bond over a shared love of Jim Jarmusch and a desire to become filmmakers. But their teenage love affair is disrupted when Anna gets an internship with Latvian documentary maker Juris Podnieks (Juhan Ulfsak, playing the real-life Latvian filmmaker).

As Jazis responds with bitterness and disappointment – even seemingly acquiescing to a stint in the Russian army – he soon begins to understand the political situation going on around him. He quickly finds himself at the Barricades – where his fellow Latvians are waiting to stop potential Soviet invaders – to document everything that is happening.

As a coming-of-age story, January hits a number of familiar beats. The pleasure of first love, the disappointment of heartache and a political awakening that can profoundly change a person are all dealt with in a story that is – at least in part – autobiographical. It makes for a narrative spine that is rather predictable. As we go along, the character of Jazis himself can often drift into the arena of the unlikeable. He fulfils the cliché of a tortured art student, all profound statements and claims of artistic brilliance, pained looks and forced nihilism. But Avots does a good job of managing to keep him on the right side of annoying in order to garner our sympathy and get us on board for the final third of the film, in which Jazis begins to change his outlook.

But while much of January dwells within well-worn territory, it’s still a piece of work that has much power. A large part of this comes from its examination of the political turmoil and the tension that typified that time. Use of actual archival footage as well as staccato and urgent moments of violence contrast with the fragmentary, slightly surreal atmosphere – which, like the archive footage, also utilises different film stocks and ratios – as we move between harsh realities and the naïve insularity of youth. Indeed, the dreamlike melancholy that suffuses the entire film is a testament to some wonderful cinematography from veteran Polish DoP Wojciech Staroń.

Ending with a dedication to the filmmakers who devoted their lives to documenting oppression and violence, January’s background story of an occupied state trying to see off its Soviet oppressors seems uncomfortably prescient in today’s political climate. But there is also something affirming and bold at play here, as the callow nature of youth can still be spurred into actions that go beyond oneself. This timely nature of the film, alongside its recent Tribeca win, should give it a well-deserved boost, and a healthy festival and VoD run will not be out of the question.

January is a Latvian-Lithuanian-Polish co-production. It was produced by Mistrus Media in co-production with Artbox and Staron-Film. It was financed by the Latvian Film Fund, the Polish Film Institute, the Lithuanian Film Centre and Eurimages. Its world sales are handled by The Yellow Affair.

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