The voyage of the seed
I began WILD RELATIVES by way of broader questions around how taxonomic approaches to nature have accelerated material and social changes to the life cycles of plants and their allies, small farmers. For some time I have been thinking about 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 biotechnology lab.
WILD RELATIVES is the first film I’ve 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 before the national boundaries we know today. What is shared now in the region is a general disregard for agrarian life and mass migration from rural to urban centres. My own family included.
While in Lebanon, I came across ICARDA (the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas). It had recently moved from Aleppo, Syria to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, due to the Syrian civil war. The centre was unable to move its gene bank, leaving behind a fully intact collection of more than 140,000 seed samples collected from small farmers and the wild. In order to continue their work, ICARDA began creating a duplicate bank in Lebanon from back-up copies withdrawn from the Global Seed Vault, a storage facility for many of the world’s crop gene banks. The vault is in Svalbard, an island in the Arctic Ocean under Norwegian custody. ICARDA was the first centre to ever take out their seeds and this garnered both ICARDA and the vault a lot of media attention.
As someone raised in Jerusalem, educated in Norway, and living part-time in Beirut, 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 realised that in order to address this event, many other stories had to be told.
Organic versus industrial farming
I read up on the history of ICARDA, the network of which it is a part (the CGIAR) [Consultative Group for International Agricultural research, ‘a global research partnership for a food-secure future’ –Ed.], and how it works on the genetic ‘improvement’ of crop varieties through crossbreeding. ICARDA holds a unique collection of seeds from the Dry Areas (Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and beyond) for this purpose. Collaborating with governmental centres, ICARDA’s ‘improved seeds’ are supposed to increase yield, resist disease, and in theory, help the livelihood of poor farmers. This distribution of high-yield 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 agriculture introduced major new challenges.
I questioned what connections could be drawn between ICARDA’s approach to food security and the Syrian revolution, as it was precisely poor farmers who constituted the bulk of protestors against the Assad Regime in the 2011 uprising. Their lives had become unliveable due to market liberalisation, cuts in agricultural subsidies and mismanagement of natural resources. Although the question of Syria is only a subtle strain in the film, I wanted to respond to the dark irony of the region’s most important collection of seeds being lodged in Aleppo, a city where weaponised starvation was being deployed by the Assad regime.
Dreaming of an independant farming movement in Syria
I came to meet Walid, a Syrian refugee who practices organic farming and an open-access ‘seed library’. In WILD RELATIVES he provides an alternative model to that of ICARDA and the Global Seed Vault’s sealed approach 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. Through this encounter, the film grew to look at different approaches to agriculture, industrial vs. organic, through the prism of the Syrian Revolution, while trying to go beyond the dichotomy of the two.
The refugee girls in the fields, ICARDA’s daily labourers who plant their crops, testify to both the atrocities of war and the continuation of life. WILD RELATIVES tries to challenge the divide of authentic vs. technological in order to conceive of possible futures that resonate with other global struggles, climate justice, food sovereignty and various forms of political oppression. It has been an attempt to reflect on the politics of rural life, its historically deep forms of knowledge and the forces that have caused it major changes. The disembodied voice of the ‘poet’ in the film is a reminder of the tension that has always existed between the state and the farmers’ intimate relationship to their land. Moving through this matrix, the voyage of the seed, through cycles of birth, growth, death and rebirth, and all that is projected onto this other-than-human body, is what guided me through.
WILD RELATIVES provides little answers or solutions to the contradictions of its themes. It rather opens up a space to reflect on the entanglements it moves through, from climate change, state violence, imperialism and resistance towards these forces. It uses storytelling and essentially, filmmaking, to create an open-ended structure that reflects the ongoingness of seeds themselves. (Jumana Manna)