An outstanding debut feature by the Russian-Armenian director Maria Saakyan, The Lighthouse (2006) is a heart-felt story about home, history, and memory.
The film follows Lena, who returns to her small Armenian village in the 1990s to help her grandparents flee an unnamed war — possibly the first Nagorno-Karabakh military conflict. But her plan to bring them to Moscow where she now lives proves more difficult than she hopes: trains to Russia are rare and overcrowded, and her family does not wish to leave. Forced to stay with them instead, Lena soon starts to doubt where her home really is.
Relying on found footage, Tarkovskian shots of nature, and even lines of poetry, The Lighthouse can be interpreted as a spiritual journey into Lena’s memories, which live in the burnt book whose image opens and closes the film. Although Lena is a grown-up, in this small Armenian village, she is still remembered as a child and is free to act like one, playing with the neighbours’ kids and listening to Vladimir Vysotsky’s audio play of Alice in Wonderland. Seen this way, the film becomes not so much a story of homecoming, but of never really leaving the world of childhood.
Nonetheless, war provides both a very concrete and strangely abstract backdrop to this psychological tale. One of Lena’s games with the neighbour’s children is interrupted by a helicopter hovering above their homes. Yet despite the sporadically disruptive nature of violence, Lena gets used to war, just like her grandparents and the community at large. The conflict is barely discussed, and the villagers listen to occasional news on the radio with the same interest (or lack thereof) as to folk music programmes. This dual depiction of the experience rather than the specifics of war makes for a universal story on military conflict.
The film slightly echoes Saakyan’s own journey: as a teenager, she too left Yerevan for Moscow in 1993, together with her family. A graduate of the prestigious VGIK film school, she quickly garnered international acclaim. Having worked as a screenwriter and editor, she directed three more features before her premature death from cancer at the age of 37. Saakyan is now widely celebrated for her innovative use of the language of cinema.