The post-Soviet vibe was easy to find at the 2022 Tribeca Festival, and January was in on the action. In a time of renewed Russian aggression on the world stage, January is a sobering reminder of how history repeats itself. Combined with a meditation on the power of art, this is a movie with an important message for our time.
Viewers meet Jazis (Kārlis Arnolds Avots), a young man with the dream of becoming a filmmaker. With his girlfriend Anna (Alise Danovska), he explores his artistic craft, inspired by the works of Ingmar Bergman and Jim Jarmusch. Their idealistic world comes to an abrupt halt when their native Latvia faces the violence of the Soviet Union in its dying days. From here, their art takes on a more real, far grittier feeling.
While the characters themselves may be slightly less than inspired, their journeys are harrowing ones. Really, the story chronicled here isn’t about any individual in particular. The characters become vessels through which to re-visit this tragic, and heroic time in Latvian history. The characters get completely lost in the story around them. That’s not always a bad thing, however. It allows viewers to take a panoramic views of the historical events being shown, and makes it easier for us to see a more complete context.
Art, of course, has always been used to portray events through a political lens, or indeed to make political statements. The former Soviet Union gave rise to a particular movement. Soviet film in particular was used for a wide range of purposes, from propaganda to protests against artist supression. Film, in particular, was the perfect choice to spotlight the experience of artists in the waning days of what was the Soviet Union.
Everything about January puts in focus the perils artists face when they simply turn their camera lens to the atrocities of a dictatorial regime. It’s not simply a heroic feat, it’s a matter of life and death for real people. Consequences aren’t simply hypothetical. They affect real people, real communities, and real families. It’s alarming to see a fictionalized version of this played out on the screen. It’s as captivating as it is horrifying.
One historical truth that January kind of touched on, but didn’t explore, was the collective experience of Eastern Europeans across nations. There’s a Belorussian man interviewed by the filmmakers, and he speaks of the unity that binds these former citizens of the Soviet Union. It would have been interesting to explore the relationship among all of these people who were compelled to be in proximity during the Soviet years.
While not everything about January comes together completely, the story is a compelling one. It’s both a universal story in its exploration of the power of the arts, and culturally specific in its depiction of the Latvian Independence movement after the Soviet Union. Arts have always been a venue to show these difficult stories. January is to be commended for addressing this reality in a sensitive and grounded way.
January had its World Premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.