“Let me take you off the hook, you have depression,” a doctor tells Jaszis (Karlis Arnolds Avots) thinking it’s what he wants to hear in “January” when it will mean he won’t have to serve in the Latvian military. This prognosis makes him actually look mildly depressed, though both he and the physician are well aware that this is largely a charade when a draft’s in place for the fight against Russian invasion of the Baltics in 1991, but seems to touch on the actual ennui he’s feeling about the whole thing in his early twenties, unsure of what direction his life should take. He is just as unmoved by the bad luck that follows when a nurse he informs the doctor that it’ll raise suspicions with the number of people he’s giving medical exceptions for, leaving Jaszis as the poor soul not to receive one.
Going to war might not be all that much of an adjustment for Jaszis in “January,” which clearly draws on autobiographical details of the film’s writer/director Viesturs Kairiss as its lead wends his way towards a career in filmmaking, but what exactly he wants to pursue eludes him. The personal touches are what naturally set “January” apart as Jaszis can’t rent out “Stranger Than Paradise” from his local video dealer – looking less like someone who runs a rental shop than an underground pharmacy – when he hasn’t yet returned the Ingmar Bergman films he’s leased out and uses egg as a gel to put in his hair as a Jarmusch-esque coiffure, but while you see the assured vision now in Kairiss retelling his story, the fictional Jaszis hasn’t found it quite yet. Hanging out with a collection of film school students can be both aggravating and inspiring as other either have skill or a sense of purpose, finding all of it as he falls into a relationship with Anna (Alise Danskova), who hardly takes herself as seriously as she helms music videos and doesn’t operate under the same pretense than no filmmaker in Latvia could compare to Tarkovsky or Bergman as he does. As her career takes off while his doesn’t, it’s obvious to everyone but himself why, yet if personal heartbreak is on the horizon as much as professional already is, at least Osvald will have the experience to take away for a film.
That Kairiss has waited for some time to make “January” as his seventh feature gives an idea of finally finding the proper perspective to tell such a story, warmly remembering what more carefree days were like cramming into a small flat for a house party with people he hardly knew but also clearly seeing the alienation he could impose of himself as his attitudes wouldn’t let him join the crowd entirely. While there’s hardly anything elegant about the prospect of war, Jaszis eventually finding his groove as he takes his father’s camera along with him to fight for Latvian independence, realizing his own distinctive abilities as his country rebels against absorption, becomes a beautifully drawn parallel and as strongly as Kairiss evokes the experience of living in ‘90s Latvia where it felt as if there were both no floor but also no ceiling for what was possible on a daily basis, the film has an energy that very much pulls it into the present. It may take some time for Jaszis to learn what type of films he wants to make, but for Kairiss, bringing audiences into the life he once led comes in an instant.
“January” will screen again at Tribeca on June 12th and June 17th at 7:45 pm at the Village East and will be available to stream at home until June 18th beginning on June 12th at 6 pm.