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Young Latvian filmmaker uses his camera as a weapon of resistance against Soviet occupiers, in this sombre lover letter to the art of cinema - from the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Tatvia’s first-ever victory at the Tribeca Film Festival explores a plethora of themes ranging from depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and jealousy – and that’s not even the half of it. Viesturs Kairiš’s January purports to be a love letter to filmmakers, to all the auteurs that have lost their lives while capturing footage from all around the world, Particularly those from the Soviet Union. The protagonist himself is a blend of former Soviet filmmakers (and even the director himself) who were once wide-eyed youngsters eager for a dream but bogged down by the environment surrounding them.

The film’s opening text informs us of the date: It is January 2, 1991, the people of Latvia are fighting for independence, and the Russian special police units (OMON) are shutting down all publications and protests that are aiding the country’s cause, while a young man attempts to make a name for himself against this morbid backdrop. 19-year-old Jazis (Kārlis Arnolds Avots) yearns to be a filmmaker like his heroes Jim Jarmusch and Ingmar Bergman but lacks the drive, self-belief, and vision to do so. Conflicted by his communist but very supportive father, concerned mother, the troubles in his city, and the threat of a military draft, Jazis’ only moments of solitude involve a Super 8mm camera and a love for the art.

This insecure, wannabe rebel decides to enlist in a local film academy, where he finds himself drawn to the free-spirited but highly motivated Anna (Alise Dzene) who he soon becomes besotted with after finding out she owns the soundtrack to Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise (1984). A medley of bad sex and adventures in the snow – highlighted by the endless footage that Jazis has captured of Anna showcases this loveable teen romance at its peak – soon comes to an end as Jazis’ jealousy and insecurities about Anna obtaining an internship with a famous filmmaker that he would have liked, ruins the one good thing he had going in his life. Jazis’s journey leads to depression, guilt, despair, and a whole lot of soul-searching to find exactly what it is he wants.

Kārlis Arnolds gives a very peculiar performance, one that is vastly different to the one he offers in fellow Tallinn Black Black Nights entry Loveable (Staņislavs Tokalovs, 2022), but there is something that just doesn’t seem right. Arnolds does his best with the material he’s been given, it’s just a shame that his character lacks the personality and excitement that makes someone compelling. Jazis sees himself as an exotic trailblazer, even though his lack of viewpoint is about as monotonous as it gets, often getting in the way of people who actually have a mission in their minds. The absence of passion and drive is a chore to watch, we don’t root for him or his doomed relationship, he knows it too, and he creates this fantasy-like dreamland with the use of his camera to occupy his mind from the real problems.

January has an intense need to be experimental at all times; the way it is filmed and edited, and how it all links into the overriding theme of mental health and suffering. There are moments where everything marries up brilliantly though because the film is rugged and rough around the edges so to speak. There are shades of Tarkovsky with its representation of morbid themes, character studies, and the inner workings of a Soviet city, and there is also a fragment of Vertov with the film’s presentation of inner angst through the lens of a film camera – it’s an effective collection of grim aesthetics and it drags the film through several muddy moments.

There is no shortage of reasons to watch January, however the film also feels pegged down by certain, questionable creative decisions. Not only does it suffer from a slightly uninspired script, but its knees begin to buckle under the weight of all these issues that have been stuffed into the smallest of spaces – this is a film that has too much going on but nothing at the same time (that’s got to be a first), and its lack of identity is extremely noticeable. Following a protagonist around as they travel from place to place is a good concept when it’s done with elegance, humour, or with some heart, and January just needs that little bit of magic to make it more memorable. But for the most part, it’s an interesting little character study about a young man who slowly becomes influenced by his experiences and the events that swamp him.

January shows in the Baltic Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By John McDonald - 25-11-2022

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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