DRIFT: Cynthia Erivo’s Mindful Melodrama Tackles Divisive Discourse Around Refugee Crisis

U.S. distributor Utopia launched the film’s American theatrical run at the Quad Cinema in New York on February 9th. It will open at the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles on February 16th. A national expansion will start on February 23rd.

Based on Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT, and starring Cynthia Erivo as Jacqueline, a homeless Liberian refugee eking out an existence on a Greek island, DRIFT is a carefully observed drama conveying the power of compassion and the durational impact of trauma.

DRIFT begins with a set of footprints in the sand and the sound of waves lapping back and forth, slowly erasing all traces of humanity before the camera pulls back to reveal a woman looking out to sea. The moment recalls the many lives lost at sea by those forcibly displaced, as captured in Mati Diop’s ATLANTIQUES (2019). But it’s also a mediation on stateless survivors.

The opening scene also evokes the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004 when 23 trafficked Chinese workers drowned while picking cockles off the coast of North West England, an event which moved Isaac Julien to create the multi-screen installation TEN THOUSAND WAVES (2010) steeped in the mythology of the Fujian province from where the drowned workers hailed.

DRIFT focuses on the complexities of displacement, contrasting Jacqueline’s silent trauma – the consequence of civil war – with white tourist guide Callie’s (Alia Shawkat) open expressions of displeasure with her chosen liminality in Greece. Callie has come to the island for love and is reluctant to admit defeat and go back to New York. Her evident loneliness is no less real than Jacqueline’s but moderated by comforts denied to the protagonist, who experiences what late American scholar Lauren Berlant calls “slow death.” Berlant describes this as a process of deterioration due to war, exploitation, famine, and/or other forms of extreme suffering which surpasses the time scale of the crisis to become endemic. 

As with AISHA (Berry, 2022) – starring Letitia Wright as the titular Nigerian protagonist going through the asylum process in Ireland – DRIFT uses rom-com elements as light relief. But in DRIFT these relationships are female-centered and presented through a queer lens. Men are largely positioned as unempathetic, menacing, or frustratingly inarticulate. Callie laments the end of her marriage due to her “machismo” husband’s refusal to come to terms with infertility. Meanwhile, Jacqueline laments her father’s inability to act before the attack on their home, and having to feel like she has to run for her life whenever a Black male street seller tries to help her. It is notable that Jacqueline only encounters Black male refugees and migrants in Greece. This visually enhances her vulnerable isolation as a young woman facing the double threat of deportation or exploitation.

Cynthia Erivo in DRIFT via Deadline

DRIFT, adapted by the author and Susanne Farrell, employs a voyeuristic tone to communicate the protagonist’s sense of being constantly surveilled, objectified, and at the same time, erased.

In contrast to both Adura Onashile’s GIRL (2023), also premiering at Sundance, and Ellie Foumbi’s OUR FATHER THE DEVIL (2021), DRIFT visualises flashbacks of the traumatic event through familiar scenes of marauding child soldiers, albeit leaving the violence largely offscreen with the camera focused on Jacqueline as witness.

Cathy Caruth observes that trauma is a durational rather than discrete experience: “The event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event” (1995, 4-5). DRIFT captures the debilitating effects of trauma as Jacqueline is possessed and repeatedly attacked by its manifestation in fragmented flashbacks and visceral dreams.

The fact that Jacqueline has a way out is indicative of her status – her father, a government minister in Liberia, jokingly calls her his “British daughter” as she was privately educated in England, and retains ties to affluent London-based ex-partner Helen (Honor Swinton Byrne), whose family could no doubt help Jacqueline’s case. Yet it is trauma that prevents her from formally seeking asylum, a process through which she will be expected to repeatedly recount her experiences of seeing her family slain and violated in minute detail.

Jacqueline’s position as an invisible figure on a beach full of white holiday-makers (who children literally run into unawares), brings to mind the silent, huddled groups of Black men who form part of the scenery of Italy’s coastline in RIMINI (Seidl, 2022). Yet the impact of structural racism is also evident in the flashback sequences of a life of privilege in England, where her status doesn’t protect her from casual prejudice.

Jacqueline’s continued refusal to accept this erasure, her insistence on paying to take Callie to dinner (with money saved from giving foot massages on the beach), is a response to what Zimbabwean academic Fareda Banda calls “status fracture,” a common experience among migrants and refugees who find themselves occupying lower social positions in Europe. For example, European Union Fundamental Rights Agency figures on Ireland show that the paid work rate among Black people with tertiary education is lower than that of the general population. Twice as many work in elementary occupations, which usually consist of manual work involving physical effort.

DRIFT is a socially-driven melodrama that tackles the divisive discourse around Europe’s refugee crisis with a gentle touch. Yet its genre limitations are reinforced by the filmmaker’s decision to focus on Jacqueline’s engagement with white women, the script’s offhand racialised remarks, and the narrative’s rootedness in a humanist approach which affirms the colourblindness it so clearly reveals as superficial.

The decontextualisation of Jacqueline’s story – we never learn how she got to Europe, whether she is seeking asylum, or whether she has anyone to turn to in England or Liberia, except Helen – is at once reductive and at the same time reflective of her lack of agency and the loss of language and self that accompanies extreme trauma.

Shot in England and Greece (the plan to shoot Liberian flashback scenes in Nigeria was abandoned due to the pandemic), French/Greek/British co-production DRIFT is Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s English-language debut. His first feature ILO ILO won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013 – the first Singaporean film to do so. It was followed by WET SEASON in 2019. Chen’s next production – the Chinese feature THE BREAKING ICE – is slated to premiere later this year. He has several other projects at various stages of development and pre-production. As with DRIFT, his films centralise displaced and disaffected women in caring roles, who nurture bonds with those similarly alienated and alone. 

Co-produced by Erivo, with cinematography by Crystel Fournier (whose credits include Celine Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD trilogy), DRIFT ends with the song “It Would Be,” jointly performed by Erivo and Black British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula. As its lyrics convey the limitations of empiricism and the necessity of hope, the viewer is left to muse on the film’s final scene, with its potential for rebirth, sublime ambivalence, and playful affirmation of embracing life in all its complexity.

Dr. Zélie Asava is a Screen Studies academic. She is the author of Mixed Race Cinemas: Multiracial Dynamics in America and France and The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television, and co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema.