Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Laura Allsop on Foragers + An Excavation

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Laura Allsop writes on Jumana Manna’s Foragers (2022) and Maeve Brennan’s An Excavation (2022), which screen together at this year’s festival.

It begins with an aerial shot of a lush green tract, strewn with stones. Far below, a lone, bent figure moves furtively among the grasses. The camera turns, following and reframing our figure as if placing them in crosshairs. Cricket song, clanking bells and a vague drone combine to make an eerie soundtrack. Before long, we are back on the ground, looking through a car window at the profile of a man smoking. Patiently, he observes two nature patrolmen through trees, waits for them to leave their truck, and proceeds to slash their tires.

With this tense sequence, Jumana Manna sets up the premise of her captivating essay film, Foragers, which follows rural Palestinians as they collect, sell and eat wild edibles in defiance of a ban by Israeli authorities on picking protected species — which are, however, legally cultivated by Israeli producers and sold back to the Arabs who prize them.

Composed of archive footage and interviews alongside scripted scenes, and shot in Golan Heights, Galilee and Jerusalem, Manna frames foraging as a matter of cultural necessity for Palestinians, a practice both perilous and imperilled. Searching mainly for za’atar and ‘akkoub, plants integral to the traditions of the Palestinian kitchen, her foragers — who include her own parents — risk heavy fines and even jail time for their activities. As such, they are closer to outlaws than scofflaws. Foraging is a form of resistance.

“I am nature, OK? I would not hurt myself,” says a forager in an early scene. He and others call into question the environmental basis of the ban, which was enacted to stop the plants from going extinct. But in a later scene, a woman alleges that there is now less za’atar since the ban was introduced, that it needs to be clipped in order to grow back.

These wild plants are metaphors as much as delicacies: for rootedness, connection to the land, and to the past. (Za’atar is poetically as well as gastronomically enshrined: the protagonist of a volume by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish is named Ahmad Zaatar.) It is a curious irony that one definition of the word forage is plunder. With Foragers, Manna asks the viewer to consider what or who is being plundered in this situation — “what is made extinct and what gets to live on.”[1]

Patrimony and plunder are also explored in Maeve Brennan’s short film, An Excavation. Brennan, who like Manna is a visual artist, takes as her point of departure a cache of artefacts discovered in 2014 at Geneva Freeport. Two archaeologists meticulously piece together three crates’ worth of vase fragments, looted from tombs in southern Italy, in an attempt to understand the dark spots in the trafficking chain. The camera lingers on the figures depicted on these precious shards, their faces still vivid despite their antiquity. At times, it seems as if they are themselves the victims of this crime. “We will never be able to reconstruct the specific history of the person who was buried there,” rues one of the archaeologists. Losing such a link, and such a context, is a loss for everyone. “In effect, it is about the erasure of our shared common history, our shared cultural heritage.”

With deftness and sensitivity, Manna and Brennan contemplate different forms of cultural heritage: the tangible and the intangible; the social and the material; and what is lost when our links to the past are severed. One of the archaeologists in An Excavation muses on the feeling of handling these fragments, how they speak to the handicraft of the original artisans; at one point, she identifies an ancient fingerprint. Similarly, Manna’s camera is often directed at the hands of her countrymen, variously picking, sorting and preparing plants for the kitchen — knowledge and tradition passing literally from one generation to another. “I’ll also be caught in 2050 with my children and grandchildren,” says an unapologetic forager. “I’ll continue the path of my grandparents.”

[1] https://www.e-flux.com/journal/113/360006/where-nature-ends-and-settlements-begin/


Laura Allsop is a writer and editor based in London. Her writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, Curzon Journal, Apollo, ArtReview and AnOther Magazine.