While she made only one short and three feature films, Mariya Saakyan wrote film history: her debut The Lighthouse (2006) was the first female directed feature of Armenia. Tragically, this highly talented director passed away a little over a year ago at the mere age of 37. She left behind a timeless body of work that put Armenian cinema back on the map.
The most memorable Armenian cinema is marked by the vertigo days of the early twentieth century. The Lighthouse is no exception. Evoking the end of the Ottoman rule in 1915 that resulted in the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, this film is haunted by the awareness of danger, loss and trauma. In it, Lena (Anna Kapaleva) travels from Moscow to northern Armenia to convince her grandparents in join her on a trip back to Russia. The Caucasus region is a warzone, again. It’s only a matter of time before death strikes in Lena’s birthplace. Of course, just when Lena is about to leave, war comes knocking at her door. Suddenly Lena finds herself stuck in the place she grew up in, a place she tried to leave, but can never really sever her ties with.
By referencing the Armenian Genocide, the Nagorno-Karabakh War and even the catastrophic 1988 Spitak earthquake, Saakyan tells a (for Armenians) familiar story of endurance and suffering. What she adds to it is a rare kind of sensuality that can evoke so much through only images and gestures. She didn’t even need dialogue in her graduation film Farewell (2003). Instead, she employed sensuous images and highly subjective sound-scapes to construct a poetic short film about loss and grief.
With its bright characters, neighborly moments and theatre-like staging, The Lighthouse almost feels like her version of a musical, a joyful ode to the resilience of Armenians during times of oppression and war. Surely, it’s also a sad film that resonates with the ever-present trauma of the Armenian identity, but Saakyan counters these grave feelings with lovely encounters between eccentric Armenians. Their connection transcends all borders. With its specific setting, yet universal emotions on display, this is one of the few Armenian films that transcends borders too.
Hugo Emmerzael is a film and music critic based in Amsterdam. He is an editor of monthly independent Dutch film magazine, De Filmkrant, with other writings published in Senses of Cinema, Gonzo (circus), Beneficial Shock, Frame.Land and on the Berlinale Talent Press platform, of which Hugo is a 2019 alumnus.