Charting Growth
Ela Bittencourt on Jumana Manna (Wild Relatives)

In her debut documentary feature, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (2015), Jumana Manna, a Palestinian filmmaker who divides her time between Jerusalem and Berlin, focuses on a little-known Jewish German ethnomusicologist, Robert Lachmann. Manna takes us through Israel and Palestine to investigate the overlapping Arab and Jewish roots in the region’s music. Her resulting exploration was a powerful testament to multiple willful gestures of erasure, showing how even the most scholarly work is always subject to cultural and social pressures. Manna’s second feature, Wild Relatives (2018), follows in a similar vein, although this time she looks at the international scientific community, and her earlier themes—of erasing and of denying common history—are not as overt. Yet her ability to reveal a story’s multiple facets, and surprising political undertones, remains just as striking. Like Emily Dickinson, Manna catches the truth aslant, and her talent earned her the Best Art Film prize at this year’s CPH:Dox Film Festival.

Wild Relatives is a meditation on the sociopolitical resonance of cross-cultural efforts in environmental studies and in agriculture. To this end, Manna records the processes behind global seed cultivation and storage. She begins by filming a dark tunnel in an unspecified location. Only later do we understand that the literal seeds central to her story are stored in precisely such underground places, stowed away in vaults, far from climatic interference. Back on the surface, the film’s first part takes place in Lebanon. Seeds that had originally been brought from Aleppo to Norway for storing were at one point taken out of the vaults and back to their original country. The hope was that these seeds would fortify the region’s agriculture. But due to political instability, they were moved from Syria to Lebanon, and must go return to Europe, thus splitting Manna’s narrative between distant locales.

Manna provides some of this background information via voiceover—a tool she uses sparingly, her voice heard only a handful of times in the film. As she relates the basic historical facts behind the international seed preservation project, the camera leads us through verdant fields, capturing the beauty of stalks swept by the wind. Again and again, Manna will mix sensuous imagery with more prosaic words, or switch from poetic visualization to more mundane, procedural imagery, such as when she films inside the Lebanese lab, where the seeds are counted, classified, and separated into pressurized bags, or when she takes us inside the office of the shipping company that must arrange for their transfer.

This process may sound dry, and yet, although Manna engages the fairly academic topic mostly in an impartial, observational mode, she sustains our attention, thanks to the range of her explorations, and also to her careful, at times sublime, sense of framing. The subtlety starts on the meta-level: although the two cultures, Lebanon and Norway, are much more remote than Israel and Palestine, Manna avoids simplistic polarization, between Occident and Orient. Which is not to say that she isn’t clear about where the balance of power rests, ultimately, with the West as the dictator of agricultural policies, though not necessarily their sole enforcer.

With admirable fluidity and control, Manna first shows us what agriculture is like on the ground in Lebanon. In this part, various stories converge. In one vignette, father and son stroll through their grove, the son skeptical and downcast, the father hopeful that their production may pick up. The two are illustrative of a common trend: farmers’ livelihoods are increasingly unsustainable, as prices are brought down by a combination of global forces, including the push for cheapest products. “Refugee business is more profitable than agriculture,” the son says bitterly. Yet across the country, farmers stubbornly hold on to their unprofitable farms.

Viewers who follow the news will recognize this pattern as not merely Middle Eastern or just Third World. From Eastern Europe to America and beyond, farmers increasingly face a grim future, threatened by monoculture on one hand, and squeezed by large industry players on the other. Manna doesn’t spell this out—her goal always more to observe than to inform. Yet her film is clearly rooted not just in economics but also in wider social interests. We can see this in how she treats a section with young Arab girls working in the fields. The young girls, their heads covered by scarves that obscure their faces, ride in a truck. At the field, the foreman points them out, one by one, a gesture that denotes the unequal balance of power. There are no men in this particular field, or adult women. Instead, the girls spray the crops, and smoke and joke during their rest time. “Here I am with my friends,” one girl says, adding that she prefers work to staying at home, where she’s not allowed to do anything. Although Manna allows the girls and the farmers to speak for themselves, in moments like these her presence is powerfully felt.

In the second part, Manna brings us to the West. First, the agro/scientific team celebrates the successful transfer of seeds back to Norway. Where the environment in Lebanon may have appeared more rudimentary with the seeds counted painstakingly by hand (although the lab procedures and technologies are actually parallel in both countries), in Norway the environment appears fully mechanized (possibly an illusion, since Manna doesn’t film the western lab). Still, this world isn’t so far from basic human concerns. As Manna films a baptism in a church in a small Norwegian town, the forceful iconography of birth, water, revival reemerges—nature’s cycle in the fields now echoes in a religious ritual. But Manna goes beyond loosely metaphysical associations. In one of the following shots, the priest from the parish and a scientist are shown admiring the landscape. Where they stand, they can see the plants growing from some of the newer seeds. What will this landscape look like in the future, they wonder? And are humans essentially good or evil?

The last question may strike us as odd, or out of place, but Manna clearly drives at the symbolic and imaginary orders specific to Western thinking. The seeds symbolize hope and progress, but as viewers, we can’t escape the eerie feeling that the West has yet again placed itself in the role of savior, while the actual pressure on farmers worldwide is, at its core, a very western phenomenon. In this sense, technology, disruption, and misery all go hand-in-hand. And is the religious zeal that Manna captures so different from the enthusiasm that scientists bring to bioengineering projects? Are enlightenment, progress, and Protestant belief aligned?

Manna doesn’t say, but as we watch the priest and the scientist slowly descend from the mount, it is hard not to fall under the spell of the previous image—that of the two standing together under a large metal structure, which looks like a tower, but whose form also vaguely evokes a cross. Against this framing, the priest’s words about his hopefulness regarding man’s fate ring ironically—the verdant West is perhaps not in opposition to the Syrian or Lebanese landscape, yet one side’s hope is marred by the other’s skepticism, and optimism is ultimately tinged with despair.