The Lighthouse – Maria Saakyan shows us Armenia as a dream

At the start of Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse (Mayak) our heroine, Lena (Anna Kapaleva) puts on an old records of the soundtrack to Efrem Pruxhanski’s animated adaptation of Alive in Wonderland.  Like Alive, Lena has crossed a border into a place she doesn’t recognise.  She is not even sure what she is doing there. And yet, this place is her home village in remote Armenia. Saakyan depicts this village as a place collapsing under the weight of its own fantasy.

We are not really sure why Lena has returned home, and one gets the feeling neither is she. Is she there to pay penance for some unknown sin?  Is she there to try to rescue her much-loved grandparents and get them out of a war-torn landscape on the border of the war between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan? Is she there just to reconnect with the past, her heritage, her roots? The conscious reasoning is sublimated in favor of a series of beautiful ellipses in which she observes the people and the land about her. In the same way that Lena’s motivations remain obscure, so The Lighthouse morphs from a film with a straightforward narrative into a film simply about watching.

But what is it exactly that we are watching?  By sublimation narrative in favor of a watched experience, we are left with almost nothing but the beauty of landscape and people’s lives.  With no narrative there is no climax, and the time frames and even the flow of the vignettes are not necessarily chronological. In his excellent essay on the film, Vigen Galstyan calls it “vaporous” (I’m taking that as my current favorite word) ad that is the best way to describe this film. It is intangible, and very very beautiful. There are the prosaic occurrences one takes for granted, like family get togethers, bathing a child and planting a tree. In The Lighthouse these moments take on a philosophical complexity passed on through dramatic visual tecnique.Just as narrative structure has been sublimated so has language. Words are part of the landscape here, not a separate explanatory dictator. This visual elaboration is not merely a stylistic device – it is also a ‘quiet’ implosion of inherited cultural and cinematic values based on patriarchal, structuralist certitudes.

Like Lena, Saakyan has dared to tread on territory colonized by men. She is the first female to have completed a feature film in Armenia.  This is a burden to her first film and her responsibilities as a female filmmakers, but she carries it lightly. (or appears to) There were only three significant Armenian female filmmakers before Saakyan, but this started to change in 1991 with the break up of the Sovient Union and a rise in Immegration.Saakyan’s family were among the many thousands who left Armenia for Russia in 1993.  This experience of dislocation is a key motif in The Lighthouse.

The beautiful unnamed village where the film was shot (actually a small remote village called Madan) appears to the view as a place out of time, and a setting rich with the possibilities of fable. The title of the film alludes to an internal, spiritual lighthouse that the characters are all drawn to.Lena (just like Saakyan herself) is very much an Alice in Wonderland. Just like Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, she is crossing borders into unknown realms and previously unexplored territory.Contexct for this film, is not so much narrative as historical trajectory.

Although Lena and therefore Saakyan is very much an outsider in this filmi (an outsider watching) the film takes on a deconstructive stance, informed by her outsider perspective. There is no sense of accusation, no finger pointing and no pop-psychoanalysis. Returning to Armenia, both Lena and Saakyan find a bundle of surreal knots that require new paradigms and tools to be untangled and made sense of.  These tools are obviously post-modernist.  Socialism is a crumbling ruin and modernity (evoked by shots of the once wonderful industrial city of Alaverdy)  flickers in the background of war reports on the TV and the radio. For Saakyan, the authentic experience of humanity lies beyond the pale of the present. the past is grounded in a kind of concrete which the presence lacks. The film shows us a world of women always working, and trying to get on within the male paradigms of war. As stated above this is an aspect usually completely subjugated because war is about men not women. As part of its post-modern anxiety, technology is consistently equated with a destructive force, and it is usually a masculine force. The society that keeps on and is always ticking over is a decidedly matriarchal one and a multicultural one. Lena is obviously half Russian as are some of those around her. However the matriarchy and the multiple ethnicity never become political, but rather are sublimated under the togetherness created by the shared human experience. The empathic choise here is to underline the bonds between the characters which are cemented by shared histories and a profound attachment to a place that transcends nationalist idioms.

In fact it is dramatically to the films credit that I didn’t recognise the matriarchal system till I thought back over the film and started to make a note and list of characters. It was only then I realised the males were fewer and I saw it as a woman’s story. This film never looks political.  It is so beautifully shot, so empathic, that is a human experience we are seeing through Lena and those she encounters. There is no time or interest in the political in this world. Also, it is neither a Russian or Armenian film.  Saakyan cuts a journey through the rubble of these dislodged binaries, reconstructing heritage and deepening the question of what it is to be human.

All of this is achieved through a stunning emphasis on the cinematic image. Aesthetic dimensions, slow long camera shots, are used to rely heavily on the conveying of thought through image. The Lighthouse’s classic painterly surfaces allow for more open readings, projections and interpretations, always trying to escape the confines of language.

When the film came out (2006 – it looks remarkably older than that, and yet also not at all) Saakyan claimed it was not political. And yet, given the way she is willing to cross boundaries and the savage political atmosphere of the film does come across as a radical statement. I particularly like its treatment of language and its distrust of it.

A wonderful, beautiful film.

Oh – and the film is worth watching for the opening credits alone!