Film review

January: a plunge into existentialist Eastern European cinema

Andrey Paounov is known for his documentary Walking on Water centred on the late Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheff as well as a series of documentaries on the post-soviet transition in Bulgaria. Photo: Tarantula Distribution

Andrey Paounov is known for his documentary Walking on Water centred on the late Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheff as well as a series of documentaries on the post-soviet transition in Bulgaria. Photo: Tarantula Distribution

Luxembourg, Bulgarian and Portuguese co-production January, the first feature film for acclaimed documentary director Andrey Paounov, plunges viewers in a loop of snowy reality with Soviet elements and uncanny dialogue.

Tarantula Distribution brings to Luxembourg the tri-production January, inspired by a play by Bulgarian author and Nobel Prize nominee Yordan Radichkov. In it, a group of men are stuck in a cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. While their acquaintance, Petar Motorov, appears to have left early in the morning, taking his shotgun and sleigh, nobody saw him leave. There are only his tracks in the snow which are slowly being erased by the storm. When the sleigh returns, pulled by its horse, Motorov is not on it. Inside it, the men find his fur coat, shotgun, and the frozen carcass of a wolf.

However, the film is more than a story about solving the mystery of Motorov’s absence. The black and white imagery intertwines well with shots of the snowstorm enveloping the cabin and creating an eerie atmosphere, magnified by strong dialogue which carries the story’s development further.

“When I wrote the film’s script, I told everyone that this is a black and white story. The story itself is black and white, not the image. This made it possible for us to put a layer of abstraction which allows the story to be perceived in the intended manner rather than in a mainstream and local way,” said Paounov speaking to Delano.

Samuel Finzi and Iossif Sarchadzhiev, playing the two inhabitants of the cabin, exhibit strong chemistry on screen portraying the two men stuck in a limbo between life and death. While Zahari Baharov, in the role of an outsider finding his way into the cabin, cuts a daunting figure, delivering lines in his typical intimidating fashion.

“The film can be seen as an existential post-apocalypse. Our world is inundated with horror films trying to send a message one way or another,” says Paounov referencing body horror film Titane which won the top prize at Cannes 2021. “We are trying to work in this genre and through it we put forward socio-political topics which can be seen in an abstract way. In Eastern Europe we too have the capacity to be part of this existential horror,” said Paounov.

Paounov’s experience as documentary filmmaker translates to a certain extent in his most recent project with recognisable shots of Soviet elements and references peppered throughout the film. He is most known for his trilogy of documentaries about the Soviet to post-Soviet transition in Bulgaria. Georgi and the Butterflies won him the best mid-length documentary award at the international documentary film festival in Amsterdam, while The Mosquitos Problem and Other Stories, and The Boy Who Was King have been screened in Cannes and Toronto respectively.

But it is Paounov’s documentary Walking on Water, centred on the late Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheff, known for installations such as the most recent wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, that has brought the director his most widespread acclaim.

January, effectively a new challenge for the filmmaker, allows him to bring another side to his storytelling talents, unbridled by not having to follow a real-life story, allowing for more freedom of expression and creativity.

January is in theatres in Luxembourg from 19 January. The film will be screened in Bulgarian with English subtitles.