The Middle East, having been scrutinized in the global news cycle for so long, is one of those places you come to make documentaries. And the more films made explaining the region to westerners, the more the assumption is built that it is an unfathomable place in perpetual need of explaining from the outside. This is closely tied to a media>news>knowledge>policy loop capable of shaping the very geopolitics of the region.
As artist and documentary-maker Laura Cugusi said in a recent conversation with me, this has almost inevitably set a high bar for self-awareness and criticality for artists in the region. Fiction, uncertainty and unresolved loose ends become a kind of implicit critique. Artists have long played with a mix of documentary and fiction in order to talk back, offer parallel stories, and untidy the narrative. Perhaps this happens everywhere, but there’s a ton of examples in Egypt alone; notably, Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s Out in the Street (2015), which contrived the retelling of factory workers’ struggles by asking them to collaboratively workshop their own stories. Here, whether stories are strictly true or not is immaterial, not only because they’re likely to be representative, but also because what is learned in watching the workers devise their scenes is as revealing as any act of straight reportage.
Sidesteps and fiction are also at work in Mahmoud Khaled’s Do You Have Work Tomorrow? (2012), which refocused the scale of the Egyptian revolution to the intensely personal, through a fictional series of Grindr message screenshots. Presented as photographs, they dramatize a sexual encounter being arranged as the revolution blazes on. Khaled razed the surface politics off what might have been framed by the news media as a redemptive story of LGBT life in the tumultuous Middle East against all odds to create a work that is a little bit seedy, a little bit cheeky, and — because other people’s sex lives always are — completely fascinating to the onlooker. It doesn’t really matter that the conversation didn’t actually happen.
So this perverse impulse to mess up the tidy stories that mainstream media consumption demands offers a considerable space of freedom, and fiction is just one of the many strategies taken to disrupt the grounding assumptions of documentary. Something of this instinct informs Maeve Brennan’s HD video work The Drift (2017), currently showing at London’s Chisenhale Gallery. In it we encounter three main characters in Lebanon, each of whom in his own way is devoted to tending broken objects. As with Egypt’s revolution, Lebanon’s war history has been over-documented, and Brennan works with the reasonable assumption that if art is to address this at all, it may need to find a way in through unexpected subject matter.
According to the interview that accompanies the exhibition handout, Brennan is a fan of the tactic of fiction, paraphrasing filmmaker Werner Herzog’s notion of ‘ecstatic truth’ as “… an idea that sometimes you have to construct something to get a more truthful representation.” The video is billed as a ‘semi-documentary’, stating upfront that some scenes are staged. My question in this review is, to what effect?
In The Drift, Brennan’s main connecting themes are of repair, care, value and time, through the activities of three men. Most of its action is centered in the Beqaa Valley, dotted with ancient ruins such as the Roman temple of Niha, which is guarded by Fakhr el Fakhry and his colleagues. They keep away looters and rebuild things stone by stone. “I know where each stone belongs,” claims Fakhry. On a roadside on the way there is a car graveyard haunted by Mohammed Zaytoun, a resident of nearby Britel and a mechanic, whose love is joyriding in his souped-up BMW. “Drifting” is his word for a particular trick performed by drivers, described by Brennan in the exhibition notes as a kind of “controlled skid.” It’s circular, balletic, noisy, and sends up lots of dust. It is one of Brennan’s staged scenes — having been carefully lit and arranged for the camera — and it looks great on video.
Intercutting the scenes of Fakhry and Zaytoun are close-ups of the hands of Hashem Ghali, a self-taught archaeological conservator at the American University of Beirut, as he pieces together ancient pottery fragments. If you’ve ever slotted together the two halves of a broken plate you’ll know how satisfying these scenes get. They also act as chapter dividers for the rest of the video, contrasting with the otherwise zoomed-out landscape views of the Beqaa hills and roads.
The film was produced by two stalwart UK not-for-profit spaces, Chisenhale Gallery and Bristol’s Spike Island. Brennan, an Irish artist and fellow of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace program in Beirut, has brought together funding from the Arts Council of England and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to make The Drift. In terms of craft, she is as meticulous as her subjects, as manifest in the steady pacing of the scenes — none much longer than 30 seconds to one minute, by my (admittedly casual) count; the naturalistic use of sound, and the color palette. The warm dusty blue-green-yellow of the frequent landscape shots is echoed in the color correction undertaken in scenes of, for example, the junkyard, which takes on that warm bluey celluloid tinge of 1970s film. Guileless effects like this help the scenes seem more thematically related.
While Zaytoun values speed — “if you can’t get where you’re going fast, what’s the point?” he asks — Fakhry takes ten years to rebuild one wall. Each of them is repairing something with strong resonances of war. The Niha temple was ruined when Syrian forces were stationed there, and it became a target for bombardment. Zaytoun points out the ruined car of a bombed Hezbollah leader, that is displayed as a monument. “Those wheels are brand new, BMW rims. I’m going to take them,” he says, in one of the film’s very few funny moments.
It’s famously difficult in art circles to make work about Lebanon without making work about conflict and its traces, to the point that that artistic issue itself is a discursive cliché. Brennan, who has previously made work about the repair of the Dome of the Rock in her film Jerusalem Pink (2015), has found an expressive route to these issues by talking, essentially, to conservators. The crossing-over of the characters in one space (constructed and actual — the archaeological conservator in the film is situated in Beirut, while the other two are in Beqaa Valley) is Brennan’s key, and for a large part she successfully allows these elements — nudged by her technical handling — to speak for themselves.
The question is whether Brennan’s staged moments discover a new truth in fiction, or if they’re simply there to amplify existing metaphors that are already quite clear enough. It makes sense to artificially light the ‘drift’ driving scenes, to produce and heighten the natural experience of being present at something that would happen anyway. But in another scene, Zaytoun replaces his BMW’s front door at the foot of the Niha temple. Presumably he would ordinarily do this in a workshop, but staging the task at the temple seems to be an attempt to add a varnish of extra meaning to a theme that has already been thoroughly established. (If this is, in fact, a coincidence and not staged, then all praise to Brennan’s documentary genius.)
In another scene, a poorly-lit anonymous figure is identified as a smuggler and informs us that smuggling happens in the Beqaa Valley. Then the film passes on. Naturally, the man would decline to be identified, but the source could be given credibility with a better interview yielding more profound information, or evidence of further research by Brennan herself. Lacking the visual impact with which Brennan has carefully developed the rest of the film’s ideas, this sudden interview feels thin. The ‘semi’ in this semi-documentary, though a liberating artistic strategy, does nothing to support the parts where bog-standard journalistic meat is thin on its bones.
There are other conceptual flourishes that don’t quite come off. In the case of the screening space itself, an otherwise conventional art cavern in East London, the plain gallery-bench seating is upholstered in car seat fabric, a touch that aimed to create “a sense of entering an enclosure and being taken somewhere,” according to the interview, but which has achieved little more than probably adding a headache and a budget line to the curators’ lives.
Aspects like this signal either indulgence or a lack of confidence in the material. Here’s the problem with fiction and documentarist play — whether you act as an artist or a member of the news media, nothing can replace a gut-level investment in the subject. The critical disruption inherent in artistic documentary starts from the fact that artists realize they are simultaneously sources and makers; whether foreign or local, their stake in what they are looking at is heavy, and drives the work. It’s what opposes their work to journalism, which usually advises never putting oneself at the center of the story. While Brennan does mention, in the interview, the fact that she places herself in the work, this is barely perceptible and has negligible effect in establishing what is at stake for her. Interestingly, in Jerusalem Pink, Brennan’s entry point is absolutely personal — her great-grandfather was involved in the Dome’s repair, during the colonial era — yet she approaches the topic with the same measure of distance as in Beqaa Valley.
In the end, The Drift is a 51-minute film that should have been 20 minutes long. It isn’t boring — those 51 minutes pass quickly due to well-paced editing and visual beauty — but it does seem to be angling for a depth that it doesn’t quite achieve.