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Broken Windows, Burning Lanterns: Maria Saakyan’s "The Lighthouse"

The astonishing feature debut from Armenian is revolutionary in the female perspective it brights to the conflicts of the South Caucasus.
Carmen Gray
“It’s impossible to live here.” These words are uttered by Lena, who's just arrived back home to her village in the Caucasus, where there’s been a war on for two years. Childhood is over, and geopolitical conflict has warped her surroundings. She intends to collect her grandparents and take them back with her to Moscow, but is soon trapped, when the trains stop running. Armenian director Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse (Mayak, 2006) immerses us in the mind of a woman for whom real sanctuary exists only in memories.
Impossible to live in one’s home as it was, but impossible not to return obsessively in dreams—it’s the in-between fate of exiles which Saakyan, who relocated from Yerevan to Moscow with her family in 1992 amid the region’s political turmoil, knew all too well. She turned to a poetic, uncanny cinematic language to grapple with the difficult emotions evoked by places at once known yet unfamiliar; present yet out of reach.
As Lena, played by Russian actress Anna Kapaleva, carries her suitcase from the train station in the blue-grey half-light, she’s in a similar quandary to the cranes above, whispered of in voice-over:
The birds took wing,
But couldn’t alight,
Just circling in the sky. 
Other residents have been continuously living in the village, but it is a pared-down, desperate sort of survival. Solely the elderly and women are left, since men who are able have gone to fight. The settlement is cut off from the rest of the world save for transmitted news, and food and kerosene are running low. The fighting is close, and choppers overhead occasion panic. Lena’s aunt, Kasiana (famed Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli, best known for her roles in the films of Sergei Parajanov), starts smashing the windows of her own house, despite the cold it will let in. She hopes it will protect her from looting marauders, who will be tricked into assuming the house is empty; another sign the notion of home as a shelter has been turned upside-down.
“A strange land is so vague, you get confused and lost,” sings the voice from the record Lena puts on in her old room. Objects, wrenched from regular use, lie in dust.
The conflicts that erupted in the South Caucasus in the ‘90s over contested territories as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the atrocities and displacement they brought, have left a painful legacy. The need to process and tell these stories has dominated much of the region’s cinematic output as, channeling rich arthouse traditions, its industries have got back on their feet.
The Lighthouse was Saakyan’s first feature and was revolutionary in the female perspective it brought to the war, amid a very patriarchal milieu. It echoes the methods of Farewell (2004), her graduation short from Moscow's famed film school VGIK, a meditation on the death of her father, who committed suicide at 21. Both show a ruminative attention to details and keepsakes; a hunger to register memory’s raw materials. In both, too, sound (from train clatter to folk chant) is layered, collapsing time, as tragedy and trauma does, into a haze of present and forever unfaded past. This is a cinema that reels back and forward to re-connect to the disconsolate now, through magical suturing, inner compass-points of origin.
The name of the village in The Lighthouse, which Saakyan shot in Armenia in the Russian language from a script by a Georgian screenwriter, Givi Shavgulidze, is never specified, even as radio broadcasts place us broadly amid the conflicts that raged in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh in the ‘90s asseparatists clashed with government forces. This lack of coordinates transcends ethnic allegiances, universalizing the film's sorrow even as spliced-in archival footage (unlabeled) of desperate throngs of refugees, carrying what they can, anchors it to historical, real-world pain.
Saakyan made two more films after The Lighthouse, before her career was tragically cut short in 2018 when she died of cancer, aged 37. Her thrillingly idiosyncratic sophomore feature, I'm Going to Change My Name (2012), again surveyed territories of loss. The past haunts its casualties with fatal recognition and compulsive repetition, as a man takes his ex-lover's daughter, a near-stranger to him, to the abandoned hilltop house where his most valued memory played out. Saakyan was not afraid, herself, to depart from type, confounding audiences with Entropy (2012), a blackly comical lampoon of a Russian pop-culture landscape high on the trashy excesses of reality TV.
Her tongue-in-cheek experiments aside, Saakyan in her bold, hauntedlyricism shares a sensibility with some more recent arthouse successes from the Caucasus, such as Georgian director Russudan Glurdjidze’s mesmeric House of Others (2016). In that Karlovy Vary International Film Festival prize-winner, the houses of residents in Abkhazia driven out “as if they had evaporated” have been taken over by new occupants, who move among the decor and aura of the prior owners' lives.
If the exile cannot truly return home, she can spatialize it inside herself—or on screen—through a radical act of imagining. “I had a dream, as a girl, I was a tree,” Kasiana tells Lena in The Lighthouse. She was afraid because of not being able to move, before realizing that inside herself is the whole world. This conception of the world in all things, and in all things, the world, suggests a way forward for a new sense of belonging anywhere.
In their poetic, holistic visions of longed-for worlds of origin, Saakyan and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky were birds of a feather. When dogs are heard offscreen in The Lighthouse, it takes us right back to the canine barks punctuating the memoryscape of Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975). In evoking his childhood country house, he draws on the oneiric power of the natural elements, making liberal use of rain and fire. Saakyan, similarly, has mystery roll in with the mist.
Tarkovsky said that only after making Mirror did he stop dreaming about the house he grew up in. Persecuted at the hands of Soviet censorship, he defected to Italy, and his longing extended to his entire homeland. The final, merged image of Nostalghia (1983) shows him with his dog in front of a Russian dacha, nestled inside an Italian cathedral — a beautiful summation of the exile’s profound inner spatial disorientation.
A poetic act in war is a radical act of resistance against destruction. Like Kasiana’s dreamed tree, the world is affirmed, entire, inside it. When Lena first steps in the door of her home, the electricity’s on the blink, illumination intermittent. She takes a lighthouse-shaped candle holder from a drawer and places it, lit, in the window. Who is she guiding there, from treacherous waters? The Lighthouse is offered as a beacon for other lost exiles, a dream that, since shared, becomes the legacy of a collective whole. Even when all is smashed, burned, or shot up, and communities scattered, the transmutational force of memory holds humanity, intact.
The Lighthouse (Mayak) is showing July 17 – July 30, 2020 at the virtual cinema of Film at Lincoln Center.


Maria Saakyan
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