Jumana Manna: Wild Relatives

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Jumana Manna’s newly commissioned feature Wild Relatives, follows a matrix of hierarchies and relationships involved in a transaction of seeds between Svalbard, an island under Norwegian custody in the Arctic Circle, and the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The film travels the path of these seeds, capturing subtle connections of human and plant lives between these two distant spots of the earth.

The traveling seeds are associated with the International Center of Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), home to the largest crop gene bank in the Middle East. ICARDA was established in Lebanon in 1976, but due to the escalating Civil War, it sought to relocate its headquarters. In 1977, Hafez al-Assad would offer ICARDA 948 hectares of land south of Aleppo. These fields would serve as a primary research base for the next forty years. But the rise of the revolution in Syria reversed ICARDA’s fate, forcing it to evacuate from Syria back to its original research station, in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. While it brought along partial staff, some livestock, and equipment, ICARDA was unable to move its gene bank of over 140,000 seed samples, collected from small farmers and the wild. In order to recreate the gene bank, ICARDA began withdrawing copies of its accessions stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a back-up storage facility for many of the crop gene banks of the world.

In Lebanon, viewers are introduced to different kinds of agricultural workers: the daily laborers in the fields – teenage refugee girls – whose status echoes the displaced seeds they plant into the earth. In the lab, ICARDA’s scientists breed pure lines of “improved seed varieties”, and a van driver, Youssef, brings the seed shipments from and to the airport. Youssef is a son of local farmers, and like many of his generation, has given up agriculture. Instead, he runs a small transportation business – driving kids to school, delivering various goods and people from one place to another.

In a nearby village, a Syrian refugee named Walid cares for an organic garden that multiplies traditional varieties of seeds from the region and abroad. He doesn’t support the modern seed varieties bred by scientists like those in ICARDA; the chemical inputs that accompany these methods erode the soil, as well as the biodiversity in the fields. The seeds that Walid and his friends tend to are kept in a small clay-walled room, accessible to anyone who wishes to farm organically: the embodiment of an alternative to the industrial farming model. In Svalbard, viewers are privy to the playful banter of Norwegian miners, extracting coal out of the very same mountain range that also stores the world’s crop seeds. Outside of these cavernous tunnels, on the surface of the mountain, a jogger makes her way through the industrial Arctic landscape, and a priest and scientist ponder the future of the earth.

Based upon extensive research, Wild Relatives might be read both as fieldwork and as a response to the dark irony of an important collection of seeds for humanity’s future being lodged in Aleppo, a city where weaponized starvation was being deployed. Combining staged and documentary footage, the film tackles such intertwining global environmental and political issues through the simple quotidian lives of people. It traces motifs of extracting and placing life forms from and into the ground, from dry lands to permafrost, in cycles of birth, growth, death and rebirth.

Press Release, Jeu de Paume, November 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.

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Installation views, The Economy of Living Things, Maison d'Art Bernard Anthonioz © Jeu de Paume, Photographe Raphaël Chipault