“These roads are made by outlaws,” says Mohammed Zeytoun, a young mechanic in Maeve Brennan’s film, The Drift, as he drives his permanently-evolving BMW though the pathways near a network of smuggling routes along the border between Syria and Lebanon. “From them,” he continues, “we learn.” Zeytoun might have added that borders, too, are often made by outlaws. The ways in which power regimes transform physical spaces in their image, or attempt to, is one of the many subjects on which Brennan’s elegiac film touches. The Drift interlaces the narratives of Zeytoun, Fakhr el Fakhry, an apparently self-appointed custodian of a Roman temple, and a self-taught archeologist named Hashem as they attempt to preserve and (re)construct social, economic and historic aspects of the nation in which they live, an eternal junction of cultures, power systems and economies.
Brennan’s film has documentary elements, but to refer to it as a documentary would be too reductive. Set-piece scenes, including an ecstatic joyride between two drivers spinning out their salvaged cars in the dust until they are on the verge of both disappearing and colliding, seem to be as central to Brennan’s work as the narratives of her human subjects. The creation of a film is an inherently piecemeal process, not unlike the sisyphean labours of Hashem, as he meticulously reassembles shattered pottery in a country where European companies like Solidere have made fortunes rebuilding dubious versions of the built environment for international delectation. This thematic connection, between the narratives and the form in which they are presented to viewers, is one of the many aspects of the film that stayed with me after I left the opening. Another was the scene which drew the largest laugh of the screening of Brennan’s film, a moment when Zeytoun drives to a strange, hybrid monument to the Hizbullah commander, Ali Saleh, assassinated more than a decade ago by an Israeli car bomb. The remains of his vehicle were integrated into a shrine that sits incongruously in the empty landscape. Zeytoun uses the term “shahid”—martyr—to refer to Saleh, a complicated figure to put matters mildly, but his concerns are also of a more quotidian nature: “Those wheels,” he tells the camera, “are brand new”. “Some day,” he jokingly says, “I’ll come and steal them”. These moments of perverse hope and mourning have been the condition of a nation engulfed in various crises for longer than my entire adult life. Brennan’s other protagonists have a similar weary faith in their own endeavours. Despite the estimated 200-1 ratio of decent-people-to-dickheads who appear at the ruins of Niha temple which el Fakhry guards, he and his fellow guardians always return because they know there is something worth preserving despite the vagaries of history and human avarice, not least the labour itself.
Maeve Brennan: The Drift
64 Chisenhale Road
London E3 5QZ
Until 4 June
Image: Maeve Brennan, ‘The Drift’ (2017). Produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery; Spike Island; The Whitworth, The University of Manchester; and Lismore Castle Arts, Lismore. Courtesy of the artist.