Maria Saakyan's The Lighthouse (2006) is exclusively showing on MUBI in the Rediscovered series.
In the opening seconds of Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse, an off-screen character opens a burned-out book and thumbs through it with great care before settling on a page of faded and lightly smudged Armenian text. This object is lit hard but simply, with a reverence for its aura and texture, the crags and valleys that it contains in its damage. It’s an iconic image that bookends and ripples through a film that deals in startling montage that collides old imagery with new, mountainous landscapes in turn beautiful and war-torn, and poetic, fantastical flourishes that have elicited many comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky. While his formal legacy is certainly felt in some aspects, Saakyan, who passed away from cancer in 2018, was a cinematic poet in her own right, and carried on a legacy of poetry through her own family—her grandmother was Seda Vermisheva, an Armenian-Russian writer and activist who released seven poetry collections in her life.
Another useful touchstone might be the first of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ukraine Trilogy, Zvenigora (1928), in which seeds of mythology literally form the landscape and set the stage for revolution. In The Lighthouse, the mythic emerges from dream recollection, poetic narration, and strange encounters with the environment and the villagers, and more than unfurling toward a specific future they reckon with a vibrant but traumatic past and a tenuous present.
Different from Dovzhenko’s Ukraine and Tarkovsky’s various zones, and although its story finds resonance in many former Soviet countries, The Lighthouse is specifically Armenian—the first Armenian feature directed by a woman. The protagonist Lena’s journey, returning to her childhood home from Moscow, echoes Saakyan’s own, as she left Yerevan for Moscow in 1993. As war rages, unnamed but possibly the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, sometimes hinted at through peripheral analog radio and TV broadcasts but often witnessed in the form of military helicopters ripping through town overhead, Lena tries to convince her Aunt (played by Sofiko Chiaureli, in her final screen role) and her grandparents to leave. But as she spends time in the village a sense of renewed belonging develops, where everything seems in place, from the slightly annoying but charming town accordionist teaching his son to play, to the way the people help an old mother grieve when her daughter passes away unexpectedly. While there’s a warranted underlying paranoia and dread stemming from the war, vignettes like these form a patchwork of community vibrancy that has a self-sustaining quality.
Saakyan and her editor Alexey Nazarchuk nurture this patchwork formally by working with what feels like “distance montage” techniques, an idea of editing developed by Armenian director Artavazd Peleshyan (who Saakyan cites as an influence), in which complex threads weave and orbit through a film, achieving unique moments of echo and resonance. We see this in the way Saakyan uses archival footage, sowing images of villagers dancing in an introductory montage, and later coming back around to found footage of refugees and violence in these same spaces, which in turn bounces off plot threads in the fiction, particularly the townsfolk’s repeated attempts to leave on trains that may never come through.
There’s also a powerful distance montage echo where a cloud of black smoke from a bomb drifts across the sun, a dark capstone to a film filled with more organically cloudy, misty landscapes that truly warrant the overused “painterly” descriptor. At certain points the vivid color mingling with the film stock’s prominent grain feels like brushstrokes in motion. Cinematographer Maksim Drozdov’s mobile camera complements the cutting style perfectly, as sometimes a gentle tracking shot floats us to the next moment as if slipping to another vibrational frequency, and sometimes chaotic handheld camerawork makes the archival moments hit harder and feel more of a piece. Consistent in the shooting though is a remarkably luminous quality, and even in digital 4k restored from an imperfect theatrical release print after the negatives and inter-positives were lost, the light and color feel somehow tactile and present, akin to stained glass.
In between shooting days for a new project, I emailed with Maksim about achieving this unique look and what it was like working on the film with Saakyan.
NOTEBOOK: Do you know what happened to the lost negatives? How is it revisiting the film a decade and a half later, after its restoration?
MAKSIM DROZDOV:Films have the capacity to correct themselves through contingencies that are beyond authors’ control. Unplanned change of weather during a shoot, technical defects in a laboratory are woven into the fabric of the film forming the final perception of the viewer in a way that is needed for the film.
Today, 15 years after the shoot of The Lighthouse, when my author’s aspirations, expectations and disappointments came off and quieted down—I can finally watch this film simply as a viewer, from the outside. And from the outside I can see that everything that I perceived as deficiencies and barriers to implementation of the idea only gives historical credibility to the film, like patina or bird droppings on an initially shiny bronze statue which help it organically fit into the landscape.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe this is in part due to the print restoration, but it feels like there’s a unique, almost archival baseline of very subdued color that allows moments of vivid color to emerge. Sometimes Lena appears to radiate a pale golden light from inside herself. Did the restoration of the print have a hand in the film’s color?
DROZDOV: When someone asks me about the image of the film, about how we managed to achieve the effect of “old film,” it puts a smile on my face, as the inquirers normally do not know about the fate of this film and how its original negative was lost during storing in the laboratory, and that what we see today is the image restored from the technical copy of low quality. In this case the image automatically roughens, loses all the undertones, and comes closer in perception to the chronicle image. Today I see that it is even better for the solid perception of the film—the time shown in the film is the 90s, the period that we know visually through faded newsreels and film copies of bad quality. One could say that the color grading of this film was made by the heavenly authors who act through accidents and who know how to do it right.
NOTEBOOK: Could you tell me how you first met Maria and what your early conversations with her were like?
DROZDOV: Masha and I met in the fall of 2004. During this period, I was shooting a film called Khottabych in Moscow and Masha came to the set to meet and to suggest developing the script of The Lighthouse. A strong mutual sympathy arose between us and the next few months of script development and preparations were a time of inspiration and mutual understanding.
NOTEBOOK: She said in an interview for Second Run’s DVD booklet that she was heavily inspired early in her career by Peleshyan, which in this film I can see in some of the circular editing in the opening and ending. I think I even recognized some of his archival bird footage from Menq (1969) in those sequences. While he was maybe more of a montage influence, did you and Maria talk about influences or references for cinematography going in?
DROZDOV: It can hardly be said that there were any "references" for The Lighthouse, but the images of Emir Kusturica definitely affected Masha and I, and the set designer Ivana [Krcádinac]. This [originally] Greek village that formed around a copper mine created a feeling that we were somewhere in Balkans and that it was a decoration for a Kusturica film.
The avant-garde style of Maria is fully manifested in editing—in sharp, not always logical editing transitions. There are moments where it worked well and there are some cuts which I still have trouble watching. But that was her nature. Yes, this story could have been more clear in terms of dramaturgy, but on the other hand poetry is always elusive and definitely isn’t a product of the mind.
NOTEBOOK: She also said in that interview that the film’s story of a return home amidst local wars resonated with many crewmembers from different former Soviet countries, including the screenwriter and the set designer, and of course herself and you.
DROZDOV: The script written by the Georgian script writer Givi Shavgulidze described the events in the city of Sukhum during a Georgian-Abkhaz conflict of 1992-93 and I have to note that it was more like poetry rather than history. There was also a local conflict during Masha’s childhood in Armenia where she was brought up, and as a result the shoot was determined to take place in Armenia—it was simply more convenient. I consider it important for the understanding of this film to note that for none of us was it a “film about war” at the very least for the reason that in the beginning of the ‘90s all of us were still kids and we could understand little about the events happening around us. The Lighthouse is a film about the childhood home, the reality around which has changed, has become unhomely, extrusive. And one seemingly needs to run from this uncozy reality, but it is so hard to leave your home behind. So many people in different parts of a big country that was at that time falling apart had to leave their homes and go into the unknown.
Originally, we were looking for locations in Nagorno-Karabakh. I saw destroyed Azerbaijani houses and mosques—they were the real traces of war—which, I have to admit, did not always flatter the Armenian side. The village called Madan that we chose for the shooting is located at the border with Georgia and isn’t geographically relevant to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
NOTEBOOK: Madan has these awe-inspiring mountainous landscapes often covered in a ghostly fog. In one shot, a sloped setting appears completely flat and Lena walks straight down, vertically in the frame, and later she accompanies another woman and her luggage to the train station, and the distant mountains look like a nearby backdrop. Later a point-of-view from a moving car carves through winding mountain roads, and military helicopters often burst through highly compressed space. We really feel that sense of childhood home displacement and vertigo in compositions like these. Could you see the potential for things like this when scouting the village?
DROZDOV: Madan charmed us immediately with its incredible depth and multidimensionality of space. Located high in the mountains the Greek village struck us with the combination of ancient beauty and abandonment—uselessness to the new world. A concrete building of the Soviet school that seemed disproportionately huge stood in the center of the village—it had been uninhabited, cold and decaying for a long time by then. This place was a poetic image by itself, and that was precisely what we were looking for when we were getting ready for the shoot. The fact that Madan was located in the mountains reminded me of the places of my own childhood, which was spent in the mountains in Alma-Ata.
By the beginning of the shoot, the film already existed in a presentiment of the space, in the images of storyboards. I remember the inspiring moment when Masha and I figured out how to express the premonition of the tragedy that happened in the neighboring bombed-out village—through the flakes of black snow—the ashes from burnt down houses falling on the white blossomed trees. Or the shot with the piano, the strings of which begin to sound from the vibrations of the approaching helicopters.
NOTEBOOK: The film is full of charged moments like that, did a lot go into planning these sorts of tableaux?
DROZDOV: I should give credit to the producers of the film, who didn’t limit me in the choice of shooting equipment. The chosen method of showing the space assumed an attitude to each shot as to a picturesque canvas with the exclusion of any accidental elements, with the use of fog machines for the creation of depth and fully designed lighting in every scene. Kodak gave me a discount for the film as a prize for my previous project and I could choose the most advanced film at that time: Vision2. I also chose soft optics and filters that emphasized the volume and depth of the space. Every shot was planned to be taken at the needed time of day, in terms of lighting, and designed as a painting.
NOTEBOOK: There’s also something interesting going on on the material level, where the quality of grain and light make for figures that interact with their environments in surprising ways. In one scene, the group is waiting for the train, and Lena takes a walk through the group and toward a bridge, and then sees the tall man playing with some children. She goes out of focus and it seems like her very atoms mingle with those of the green trees behind her.
DROZDOV: Probably on the subconscious level, I always wanted to express the unity of the human and of the air surrounding them in the moving image—this feeling of dissolution of everything in everything, when the world seems to lose its materiality through the blurring of boundaries between objects. In all of my works I strive for extremely shallow depth of field that creates such an effect. You asked about the scene where Lena walks through the station at night passing the people waiting for the train and as she walks out of focus, she seems to dissolve in space. This is also the help of the heavenly co-authors working through accidents—or in other words it’s a technical defect (the focus puller simply couldn’t see the image in the monitor that fogged up from the rain), thanks to which a solution was incarnated, the one I didn’t have enough courage for at the time. And I’m grateful to the heavenly co-authors for the fact that this happened and to Masha for putting this take in the edit.
Translated by Ekaterina Selenkina