MUBI is exclusively showing Jumana Manna's Wild Relatives (2018) as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their Art of the Real showcase of innovative voices in nonfiction and hybrid filmmaking. The film is playing May 10 - June 9, 2018 in the United States.
I began Wild Relatives by way of broader questions around how taxonomic approaches to nature have accelerated changes to the life cycles of plants and their allies, small farmers.I’ve been dealing with the complicated experience of encountering something so beautiful that carries with it histories of colonial violence; be it a herbarium sheet, a botanical garden, or a seed sprouting in a lab.
Wild Relatives is the first film I made entirely outside of Palestine. Yet the farmers in Lebanon and Syria share similar histories and relationships to power, to those of my parents and grandparents. It was not so long ago that farmers from the Galilee, mount Lebanon and Horan would travel to barter their harvest, before agribusiness and the national boundaries we know today. What seems to be shared now is a general disregard for agrarian life and mass migration from rural to urban centers. My own family included.
While in Lebanon, I visited an agricultural research center, which had recently moved from Aleppo, Syria to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, due to the Syrian civil war. The center was unable to move its genebank, a significant collection of seed varieties collected from small farmers and the wild. So, they decided to create a duplicate bank by withdrawing their back-up seeds, stored far away in a vault, on a Norwegian island called Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle.
As someone raised in Jerusalem and educated in Norway this geographic connection and the symbolic resonances of the story caught my attention. It inspired me to build a narrative, different than the one covered by the media, which takes these two tiny spots on the earth, connected by a transaction of seeds, as a starting point. The more I learned, the more I realized that in order to address this event, many other stories had to be told.
I studied the history of the center, ICARDA (the International Center of Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas), the network of which it is a part, how it works on the genetic “improvement” of crop varieties through cross-breeding. Collaborating with governmental centers these “improved seeds” are supposed to increase yield, resist disease, and in theory, help the livelihood of poor farmers. The distribution of high yielding seeds has its roots in the Green Revolution; a movement in agricultural production and foreign policy that believed world hunger could end by the spread of such seeds, irrigation techniques and chemical inputs. But this encouragement of industrial farming is basically the base of most of the problems agriculture is causing to the planet today.
Through the various entanglements featured in this film, I have sought to trace the connections between the Green Revolution and the Syrian revolution; as it was precisely poor farmers who constituted the bulk of protestors against the Assad Regime in 2011 uprising. Their lives had become unlivable due to market liberalization, cuts in agricultural subsidies and mismanagement of natural resources. I also wanted to respond to the dark irony of the region’s most important collection of seeds being lodged in Aleppo, a city where weaponized starvation was being deployed by the Assad regime.
Walid, the organic farmer in the film is a reminder of alternative, non-institutional models to seed saving. He dreams of an independent farming movement in Syria, in which seeds will be in the hands of farmers, not those of the regime or companies.Wild Relatives looks at different approaches to agriculture, industrial and organic, while trying to go beyond the dichotomy of the two. It has been an attempt to reflect on the politics of rural life, its historically deep knowledge forms and the forces that have caused it major changes. Moving through the matrix of the seeds’ journey; the various hierarchies and infrastructures they travel between, as well as their cycles of birth, growth, death and rebirth, has been what guided my script.
For more, read Jumana Manna's article "A Small/Big Thing," published by Tamawuj, the online publishing platform of Sharjah Biennial 13.