A mix of elegiac poem and war memoriam recall Tarkovsky in The Lighthouse (2006)
Set during the Caucasus wars (director Saakyan refers to them as "the local wars") which devastated the foundations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1990's, Mayak is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl named Lena (Anna Kapaleva) who returns home to a rubble-strewn village in Armenia (Saakyan's home) in an attempt to convince her grandparents to flee with her to the safety of Moscow. Although it proved hugely popular at the Yerevan and London Film Festivals in 2007 Mayak only now receives a UK release, and it is going straight to DVD.
Saakyan smartly avoids any kind of political agenda, instead concentrating on images and music to inform the feelings of a war-ravaged community. The film doesn't adhere to traditional narrative codes and conventions - it is strictly free-form, better viewed as a visual poem. The DoP is Maksim Drozdov and in Mayak he has crafted some beautiful images. In fact, he's crafted some of the finest images of the last decade and it's truly a shame that they won't be seen on cinema screens. Saakyan and Drozdov paint vast metaphysical landscapes which evoke memories of Tarkovsky's Zerkalo (1975) and Stalker (1979). I often find it hard to describe the visual quality of those films. The sepia aesthetic gives them a timelessness, recalling the visual quality of monochrome photographs of the 19th Century. Mayak obviously wants to embrace this quality, presumably to make the point that our identity is still stuck in the past and that war has drained this community of colour. The community is tightly-knit and led by women - women who are, as film historian Vigen Galstyan notes in the accompanying booklet, "trying to get on with life within the male paradigms of war." On a visual level Mayak is one of the forgotten masterpieces of the last decade.
I know sadly little about the Caucasus wars but in a way that doesn't matter. Mayak is concerned with individual relationships, and they are portrayed through a series of thematically threaded vignettes. It is a film about coming home, about grieving and about nationality. These are the ideas the film rests upon, and its elegiac images present a canvas on which the viewer can paint their own feelings. A night-time shot at the beginning of the film, where the path home is illuminated by stars and takes on an almost fairytale-like quality, suggests that evil lurks over the home, but that the place is resolute. In Mayak the foundations of a family lie in the home, and there is more to consider than just personal safety. The home is a place of pride, and it is telling that Lena's grandparents at first want to stay. But her conviction is admirable and endearing. Actress Kapaleva has a Bergman-esque face. Does that make sense? Probably not to you, but it does to me. What I mean is that her face is angelic, but has endured great pain. All of Bergman's women had that quality. When I look into Lena's delicately reflective eyes I am reminded of Ingrid Thulin in Winter Light (Bergman, 1963).
I'll probably get more from Mayak upon a second watch, perhaps with more knowledge of the Caucasus wars and a deeper understanding of Armenian culture. A re-watch is an experience I look forward too, because the world of Saakyan's feature debut is one of profound emotion and spectacle. There are some unforgettable images in Mayak, and if there's any justice its beauty will inspire some kind of renaissance in contemporary Russian cinema.
The aforementioned booklet, which contains an interview with Saakyan in which she discusses being one of the few female Armenian directors, and also essays by Vigen Galstyan and author/poet Sophie Mayer. On the disc, presented in a 16:9 digital transfer, there is also a short film by Saakyan entitled Farewell (Proshchanie) (2004). It's the abstract story of a young couple flowering against a vast landscape, although one more capitalistic and less war-ravaged than in Mayak. She gives birth to a child, and he seems to be institutionalized - these scenes reminded me of Tarkovsky's Solyaris (1972). Almost entirely free of dialogue, this beautifully photographed (by Alexandr Kuznetcov) minimalist romance is a powerful work; stark yet hopeful, and really quite brilliant.
Mayak is released on DVD by Second Run, on April 11th.