This feature-length film furthers Manna’s ongoing exploration of how taxonomies of seeds, and plants carry histories of violence and colonialism. Wild Relatives charts the transaction of seeds between two distant geographies: Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian coal-mining island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, and the Bekaa Valley, the most important farming region in Lebanon. The link between these distant semi-deserts is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a backup facility for thousands of crop genebanks located across the world.
With the Syrian Revolution escalating into a state of war in 2012, an international agricultural research center was forced to relocate across the border, from Aleppo to the Bekaa. The centre was unable to transfer its genebank of seed varieties; therefore, it decided to create a duplicate bank in Lebanon, by withdrawing back-up seeds, stored in the Svalbard Vault, and laboriously planting, harvesting and freezing their collection anew.
By drawing attention to the geopolitics of seed-saving and modes of nurturing, storing, ‘improving’ and capitalising upon the natural world around us, Wild Relatives not only seeks to trace the entanglement of these two landscapes but also, implicitly, between two revolutions: the Syrian revolution and the Green Revolution. The latter being a movement that developed during the Cold War, seeking to end world hunger through the breeding and distribution of high-yield crops, irrigation techniques and chemical inputs; accordingly giving birth to agricultural centers and seedbanks like those in the film.
In tracing the journey of the seeds between the Arctic and Lebanon, a matrix of intertwined human and non-human lives unfold between multifarious figures including scientists, organic farmers, lorry drivers, priests and the young migrant women employed to plant and harvest crops in order to implement this large-scale international initiative in the Bekaa. Wild Relatives therefore opens up a space to reflect on tensions between state and individual, industrial and organic approaches, climate change and biodiversity, captured in an open-structure of vignettes that reflects the dispersed and ongoing stories of seeds themselves.
Jumana Manna, born 1987 in the USA, lives and works in Berlin.