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Of Lights and Houses: Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse

Home is the sailor, home from the sea

And the hunter is home from the hill.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, writer and lighthouse engineer.

This is how The Lighthouse begins, with a homecoming. But not immediately. The film begins, rather, by moving towards home and its meaning. A girl sings under her breath over the image of a burnt book. A train stands still on a siding just outside a deserted rural station. People dance: teenagers popping on the railway tracks intercut with grainy home movies of people dancing at a party, maybe a wedding, in the 1960s or 1970s. Birds take flight from a lake at sunset. Hundreds of cranes: a nod to the only Soviet film to win the Palme d’Or, The Cranes are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli, 1957), a piercing study of the emotional devastations of war. Its director Mikhail Kalatozov was Georgian, and the head of the film studio in Tblisi. Migrant birds on the wing, the emotional impact of war, and the question of a post-Soviet dual national identity: in a single, haunting image, the ideas at the centre of the film take flight.

Even before we see the protagonist of The Lighthouse, we catch a glimpse, in these images, of the thoughts that the journey might inspire: the sensation of being caught between stillness and motion, between present and past, between freedom and a longing for home, and even between meanings of home. This is familiar territory: nostalgia, literally home-sickness. Odysseus’ quest, the return of Martin Guerre or the father in Andrei Zvagintzev’s 2003 film The Return (Vozvrashchenie). Yet Odysseus and his ilk are figures of disturbance and disruption; in a way, they don’t belong in the home they long for. To be out in the world means that home becomes a secret shame, desired but disappointing. Many post-colonial and emigrant writers have observed the impossibility of return.

A girl comes home.

This is a return with a difference: the protagonist of The Lighthouse is not a man. In Western cultural history, women’s place has been the home, and that identification has served as a trap: to be a woman coming home is different than to be a man. Lena, the protagonist of The Lighthouse, is no soldier or sailor. Her train-lulled dreams suggest her anxieties. She dreams of the train as stasis, stuck out in the country, and of the movement of dancers and birds. For women, home has traditionally meant the former, and the latter has offered a rare escape.

After the cranes take to the air, we see a girl sleeping on a train, or trying to sleep as an old man and young girl sing and chatter. The girl awakes and walks through the carriage, wordlessly and awkwardly passing a boy in khakis – a soldier, perhaps – who is hovering in the doorway. Out of the window, she looks down over a misty hill town; the hill we will see her walking up, wreathed in mist, a few moments later. “The birds took wing / just couldn’t alight / circling in the grey sky.” The lines are spoken in voice-over as birds rise up in the mist, flying over Lena’s head. Home might be better on the wing.

A girl comes home, alone, at night.

To be a woman out alone at night – to be travelling alone – remains an image of risk. It is an image that persists in dozens of horror, slasher, and psychological thriller films, a misdemeanour all too readily punished by cinematic violence, either human or supernatural. The same cautionary tale appears in romantic comedies, but as a wish-fulfilment, a truth universally acknowledged that a woman coming home alone must be in want of a man.

In a story or painting, a woman at night may possess the powerful association between women and night, relating to women’s menstrual affiliation with the lunar calendar, but she is also tainted by the negative values attached to that association. A woman outside, alone, at night is a witch or a sex worker or a victim. Lena’s return is fraught with risk even before we know that she is returning to a country at war.

A girl comes home, alone, at night, walking towards a light in the window.

Lena has come back to the village where she grew up to persuade her grandparents to leave, to come back to Moscow with her. There is a war going on, and the village is not only caught in it, but has been practically emptied by it. Only elderly people remain, mainly women, chopping wood and hauling cold water in the old ways because war has cut them off from the modern world. Oil deliveries are rare, trains do not come. And yet her grandparents are resolute: they will stay. Their resolution challenges Lena to rethink the meaning of home.

As Lena approaches her old home, the title of the film (Mayak) appears as if the letters had been scratched out of black ink spilt on glass. Through the clear letters, a single lit window of a building is visible. It’s a timeless image from a fairy tale and an image of a woman waiting for her man to return, the single light burning in the darkness. Lit from within, the building becomes a lighthouse guiding Lena to shore – or, as her old friends will suggest, indicating dangerous rocks and currents ahead.

A girl comes home, alone, at night, and turns on the light.

A lighthouse is always dual: a greeting and a warning, sign of safety and of danger, a symbol of salvation and a memento mori. As Sigmund Freud argues in his essay ‘The Uncanny,’ homes themselves are like that. ‘Heimlich,’ the German word for homely, means at once the familiar and comforting aspects of home, and its secret, treacherous possibilities. When Lena enters her apartment, it is dark. The familiar objects are literally unhomely, uncanny: shrouded in ghostly dustsheets. Lena switches on the light and plays a record on the record player. “Good and evil in Wonderland” plays and she dances, looking at old photographs on the mirror.

But the past is a different country, and visas for nostalgia are short stay only. The power cuts out and the record winds down with an uncanny dying fall. Footsteps approach the door and Lena rushes to defend herself, colliding with Kasyana, an old woman carrying an oil lamp. Where one light goes out, another appears. In the pale daylight the next morning, Lena sees other old women going calmly about their tasks. Yet there is a note of absurdism in the repetitiveness of their work, in its normalcy amid the ruined buildings, in the contrast between the modern Lena with her wheelie case and pixie crop and the old ladies swathed in black. The absurdism is confirmed later in the film, when Kasyana smashes all the windows in Lena’s flat so that looters will think it has already been emptied.

A girl comes home, at night, in the middle of a war.

The film’s director Maria Saakyan was forced to leave Yerevan, Armenia with her family at the age of 12 because of war. They moved to Moscow, where she eventually studied film at VGIK before making The Lighthouse, her first feature film. She now lives in Yerevan again, but many South Caucasians remain displaced by war, both internally and externally. There are currently an estimated 1 million internally displaced persons in the South Caucasus. According to the United Nations, 800, 000 people were displaced in Azerbaijan by the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (1988-1994) and 10% of the population remains internally displaced. 200, 000 ethnic Georgians were internally displaced by the 2008 conflict with Russia. As the formerly Soviet states have fractured and their borders have been redrawn, home has become unhomely.

The film never tells us directly when and why Lena left, nor what she has been doing in Moscow since she has been gone. She has not returned to lead the resistance, nor to save those who have stayed behind. She returns to find that life goes on; that it has stayed the same, and that it has changed. Mist still cloaks the hills in the mornings, and when Lena takes her friend Iza’s son Givi up there, they find a bird’s nest just as she must have done as a child. Givi picks up a feather and it blows away — on the currents created by a helicopter’s blades as it rises over their heads.

A girl comes home, alone, in the middle of a war, and lights a candle.

Coming home, Lena returns to her childhood. Despite (or because of) the war, she is free from responsibility, free to wander, to take part in the absurd, melancholy repeated pantomimes of village life: trying to fix the light fitting in her apartment, despite there being no electricity; joining Rozalinda as she wheels all her belongings to the train station for a train that never comes, arguing all the way with village crazy man Kote; getting drunk with Iza and her husband Levuk and pretending to shoot a cheating man with a shotgun – causing all the furniture to fall down; talking to Kasyana in the forest about her dream of being a pear tree.

In her apartment, Lena finds two childhood toys: a wooden boat and a candle-holder in the shape of a lighthouse. She lights a candle in the base and puts the tower over it. We see the house from the outside, the same shot as under the title screen: a single light shining in a window. It is as if Lena were there before she had even arrived, as if the thought of the lighthouse drew her home, or as if – in finding her childhood toy – she had never left. War changes the feeling of time as well as curtailing the dimensions of space. She gives the boat to Givi, who sails it on a water butt. He will eventually leave for Moscow with his parents on the train.

A girl comes home, alone, in the middle of a war, and lights a candle in a lighthouse.

There are no lighthouses in Armenia. To find a lighthouse, you have to travel east to the Azeri shores of the landlocked Caspian Sea, to Baku’s most famous landmark, Qız Qalası, the Maiden Tower. Built in the 12th century BCE, Qız Qalası was turned into a lighthouse by the Russians in 1858, and has been inactive since 1907. A host of legends surrounds the meaning of the name, all of them constellating the difficult meaning of home (and nation) for women, and particularly the ways in which women’s bodies are used as metaphors of home and nation. The best-known legend tells of a maiden (said to be the daughter or sister of the Khan of Baku, who incarcerated her in some versions, for a love-related crime) who threw herself from its top. This legend echoes in the claim that the tower itself remains a ‘maiden’; it has never been taken by force.

Lighthouses are a map of war and ownership, capitalism and conquest. Mayak, the title for the film and the Russian word for lighthouse, is also the name of one of the biggest nuclear facilities in the Russian Federation, near Chelyabinsk. It was the source of a serious contamination in the Urals in 1957, which was kept secret by the government for 30 years. Mayak was the target of Gary Powers’ surveillance flight in 1960. A lighthouse is a sign of power.

If you travel west in the South Caucasus, you find the lighthouses of Georgia’s and Abkhazia’s Black Sea coasts, the coast that Russian leaders fought to gain, from Peter the Great to the Soviets. The Black Sea offers a route through the Dardanelles to Europe and beyond, connecting Russia to the world. Georgia was historically inland, but conquered the coast and established two port cities, Poti (whose lighthouse Guria offered a defence against the Ottoman Empire) and Batumi, in the autonomous republic of Adjara. Both Poti and Batumi have lighthouses serving the oil industry: the new Great Game being played out across the former Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

A girl comes home, alone, in the middle of a war and lights a candle.

The candle, and particularly the candle in a window, has become the sign of peace protests the world over. A candle flame – vulnerable to every breath of air – is the opposite of the fires of war. Lena’s candle in a toy lighthouse is a light that is not dependent on the oil deliveries that, as her grandmother tells her, the army have disrupted. Shortly after she lights it, other flickering lights appear outside the window: tracer fire, flares, bombs. The next morning, there are isolated fires still burning all over the village. Her grandfather meets her in the street and, shaking, tells her to leave.

According to Michael Berman, in The Shamanic Tradition in Armenian Folktales, Armenians were fire-worshippers, as was common throughout Central Asia. Armenians had a fire god called Mihr, son of the principal god Aramazd (Ahura Mazda, the principal god of Zoroastrianism). For Armenians, unlike Zoroastrians, the sacred fire was invisible, although a lantern was lit from the sacred fires prepared on Mihr’s commemoration-day, and it was kept burning in his temple throughout the year. The eternal flame is a sign of a community in peace and continuity, a home fire burning that Lena attempts to reignite.

A girl comes home, alone, in the middle of a war and washes her face.

As well as fire ceremonies, there was a powerful significance attached to local water sources, which were believed to have healing powers, and to be inhabited by nymphs. The tradition that women had guardian nymphs is kept alive by some Armenian women with festivals at the public baths in May and October. Lena is associated with water as well as fire: her view from the window of the train is of a river in spate (heralding the coming of spring). To reach her grandparents’ side of the village, or the train station, she has to cross the river on a metal footbridge. She, Iza and Kasyana get drunk with their hair wrapped in towels; later, she bathes Iza’s son Givi: everyday rituals with deep roots and resonances. Phenomenon Films, who produced The Lighthouse, has a graphic of three people in a bathtub as its logo.

On the morning after she fails to board a packed train, falling and hurting her hands, Lena washes her hands and face in the cold water from the rain-butt in the empty yard. The old women have stopped sawing the log and chasing their chickens. One of them has died. Lena’s ritual cleansing signals the start of the ceremonies of mourning. When she re-submerges her face in the tub, she has a vision or memory of a corpse floating in the river. Later, during the funeral meal, we see home movies of people playing in the river, a party in a happier time.

A girl comes home and looks at the light.

We intuit that the old movies must show the people that Lena left behind and who have now left her behind; people whose world left them behind when it changed so brutally. We intuit that her parents and their friends are exiled or dead or, like the people who remain in the village, mad. Saakyan’s short film ‘Farewell’ (‘Proschaninie’) is dedicated to the memory of her father, an artist. The film begins with a child entering a darkened house and seeing a dead man, as Givi does after Lena washes her face. As Farewell unfolds, we understand that the man is the child’s father, a brilliant and disturbed artist who sectioned himself and abandoned his family. The story is told almost wordlessly, impressionistically, through vivid images, resonant gestures and a painterly intensity of light. The artist watches light on the sunlit fields beyond a train window, passing over the walls of his apartment, falling on the floor of a tram, pouring through the high windows of the cathedral-like market. Even the credits wipe like the bright windows of a train carriage passing.

But, even for an artist, light cannot be a house – the place he lives, or that keeps him alive – nor can a house be light. In The Lighthouse, Lena has to work out this contradiction – as Saakyan does when she chooses the kinetic medium of cinema. A cinema is a house of light, but light whose effect comes from its refusal to be still. A lighthouse is an image of waiting and stillness when seen by the sailor at sea: a safe haven and a constant beam of light. But seen from the inside, the lighthouse is a place of alertness rather than passivity, whose only constant is change as the beam of the light in motion sweeps over the sea.

A girl comes home.

Just as she has to look at light from the inside, Lena has to work out a new meaning of home for a woman, a refugee who is also a returnee. When Kasyana describes her dream of becoming a pear tree to Lena, she says “Because in me, the tree, the world is moving.” Although the tree appears to be an image of stasis, it is actually alive with movement. This is the new meaning that Lena finds in home: a place of motion, not only as its meaning – even its nationality – changes, but as it remains strangely and stoically alive and in flux, adapting to new exigencies and griefs. Letters, pianos, and the river all flow towards the village, while the train can only go one route, and travel to one place. By staying in rooted one place, Lena is connected to everywhere, like the tree by the elements and the earth, or the lighthouses in their coastal chain of answering beacons.

In the end credits, the poignantly cheerful home movies are replaced by melancholy footage of refugees moving precariously and constantly, under the gaze or blows of soldiers. The footage could be from anywhere, any war. The film’s screenwriter is Georgian and the set designer Serbian. The story of The Lighthouse is at once utterly about home – its particular mists, accents, songs, personalities, hills, troubles and light – and about everywhere, because everywhere is home for someone. In every window, a light burns to guide the traveller home.

Words by So Mayer

Information on lighthouses in the Caucasus from

This essay was originally published by Second Run in the DVD booklet essay for The Lighthouse (Mayak).

You can buy The Lighthouse (Mayak) here:

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