Maeve Brennan’s ‘The Drift’ is a 50-minute film set in east Lebanon that follows the lives of three individuals: a gatekeeper of the Roman temples of Niha in the Beqaa Valley; a young mechanic from nearby Britel and an archaeological conservator working at the American University of Beirut. By focusing on the trades of each, the film comments on the heritage and landscape of the area, conflicts and pressures threatening its archaeological remains and the relationship between generations.
From the very first images you are transported into rural Lebanon. The silence of the valley is broken by an incoming car, driving past a junction littered with disused motor vehicles. These modern ruins are instantly followed by ancient villas and temples that have sat for centuries in the countryside, now surrounded by roads, pylons and infrastructure. The scale of these remains are stunning, not least because I’m watching the film in a country that was once at the opposite end of the Roman Empire but still inherited a substantially similar vernacular of Roman architecture.
As we are introduced to one of the gatekeepers of the temples of Niha though, that these ruins have survived for so long is almost a miracle within itself. He speaks of having to defend the temples from looters during recent wars in Lebanon and even now is accompanied by armed men. The archaeological conservationist also talks of ancient marble columns he had to buy from manual labourers looking to sell off the material. He had to disguise ancient sarcophagi as plant pots, hiding them in plain sight.
These scenes are a chilling reminder of the very real threat to archaeological sites and artefacts across the Middle East by the likes of Islamic State and Taliban, either destroying them for religious propaganda or selling to antiques dealers and museums in the West on the black market. The importance of these remains and shared cultural heritage is shown through the speakers, ‘wherever you dig you’ll find Roman ruins, Roman tombs’ exclaims one and the gatekeepers says in his youth how he ‘admired (Beqaa’s) temples and the giants who built (them)’. Even our youngest speaker describes his images of the Romans as ‘tall with a strong build’.
The interplay between generations is shown in subtle ways. As we follow the mechanic, driving around his local area, he feels a world away from the older interviewees. As you might expect, his clothes are Westernised and contemporary, and his music is loud and electronic. His casual conversation style is more relaxed, even when commenting on more serious matters such as car-bombs in recent memory.
What the film does well here is to portray the similarities too. A slow/static camera captures him collecting scrap and industriously fixing and re-modding cars. Just as our archaeologist is captured, moving around his cluttered workshop and deftly mending and renovating artefacts. With minimal sound or interference, watching them is an engaging and fascinating process that highlights the craftsmanship of both.
The cinematography is a highlight of ‘The Drift’. The camera ranges from sumptuous panoramas of Lebanese valleys to human-scale portraits of villages, cars and ruins, all the way down to individuals working in minute detail. This is a calm and considered filmmaking that invites you in as viewer to think about the fragility of human creation and never-ending march of industry and trade.
The final scene, of our mechanic loudly drifting around a car park in his suped-up vehicle is a cacophony of noise in comparison to the majority of the film and almost acts as a metaphor for how a quiet landscape can be so easily and immediately disrupted and transformed forever by violence and conflict.