A burnt book flutters its tattered pages; a long-legged fool skips on a deserted railway platform; a raucous celebration of peasant dancing erupts; a grainy black and white sequence of birds in flight – how do we connect these vivid fragments? The opening of The Lighthouse is as disorienting, yet absorbing, as the lyrical journey that lies ahead.
We stumble across a barren landscape, scarred by conflict, and are transported into a timeless mountain village swirled by mist. A young woman, Lena (Anna Kapaleva), is apparently coming home. But where is this place? And when? As Lena removes the dust sheets from her long-abandoned furniture she notably listens to a record of Alice in Wonderland – appropriate for a world where war has made nonsense of the normal. And The Lighthouse is best approached as a tumble down a temporal rabbit hole, where grainy flashbacks of a pre-war past are elided with an ever-pervading fear of future destruction and a fleeting respite is found in the mundane, domestic present. Shots of a child being bathed or hands sawing logs for a fire, sing with a simple beauty. Like Lena, her 20-something heroine, the then 27-year-old director Maria Sakyaan was a young woman displaced by war. Aged 12 the conflict in the Caucasus forced her and her family to flee Armenia to Moscow. The Lighthouse, her remarkably confident debut, was not just about realising her own vision as a filmmaker – an uphill enough challenge given she is the first female director to complete a feature in the history of Armenian cinema. It was also a way of exploring the trauma of her own past and that of her fellow collaborators which, on The Lighthouse, included a Serbian set designer and a Georgian screenwriter, both similarly swept up in the mass migration that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union after 1991.
Saakyan trained as a film maker in Moscow and it’s the Russian master, Andrei Tarkovsky, whose influence ripples most strongly through The Lighthouse, most notably in the repeated use of water and mirrors that provide its more sublime moments of reflection. However her influences run wider. She has said she was inspired to the ‘magical’ possibilities of film when she saw Peter Greenaway’s A Zed And Two Noughts as a child and Saakyan’s unique, dreamy visual style here also occasionally recalls two other ‘outsider’ British auteurs – Lynne Ramsay and Derek Jarman. Certainly The Lighthouse was enthusiastically appreciated by British critics, many of whom ranked in their top 10 films of 2007 purely on the basis of its two screenings at the London Film Festival that year.
Refreshingly for a war film, certainly for one shot by an Armenian, Saakyan focuses her lens mainly on women and girls and their concerns and everyday struggles. Men are absent (away fighting) or disembodied as a ‘threat’ located in the black army helicopters that roar overhead or the radio voices that announce fatalities. Both of these represent the powerful external forces that dictate the women’s lives and that are, terrifyingly, beyond their control. The penultimate shot of the film is that of a female refugee silently screaming. With The Lighthouse, Saakyan has finally given that nameless woman, and thousands like her, a voice.Larushka Ivan-Zadeh