Music floats above Zionism’s barriers

A scene from A Magical Substance Flows Into Me. (Courtesy of Jumana Manna)

In her new film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, the acclaimed young Palestinian artist Jumana Manna revives the decades-old Jerusalem radio broadcasts of German Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann.

Manna’s film weaves together geographically disparate spaces, traditions, politics and personal histories within Palestine through music, imagining a more fluid historical memory that, like Lachmann’s radio broadcast, defies the barriers of the Israeli occupation.

Lachmann, who emigrated to Palestine in 1935 after the Nazis dismissed him from his position at the national library in Berlin, founded a department and archive of “Oriental” music at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and hosted a radio program featuring music from the country’s varying cultural and ethnic communities.

Manna uses Lachmann’s broadcasts as a blueprint for her film, delivering his transmissions through her iPhone to contemporary musicians throughout historic Palestine and capturing their conversational responses and performances.

Manna inserts herself into Lachmann’s position, inhabiting it with a degree of irony. She reads parts of his broadcasts in her own words, narrating the film throughout.

Early on, she recites Lachmann’s belief that his deep research and “adoration for Arab songs” leaves him entitled to speak with authority on the subject. Manna confronts Lachmann’s Orientalism, questioning his authority by repurposing his archive for her own investigations.

While Lachmann never broadcast interviews with the musicians he recorded and discussed on his radio program, Manna highlights their voices and personal histories.

Manna herself also appears in the film as she plays Lachmann’s broadcasts for various producers and performers of traditional music.

The scenes often take place in domestic spaces, with Manna and her subjects sitting on couches or cooking in kitchens. By inserting herself into the frame, Manna not only performs Lachmann’s research but maintains a sense of intimacy missing in Lachmann’s archival process.

The quotidian is always political

In one scene, Manna explains her project to a Samaritan elder in the living room of his Mount Gerizim home near the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. She plays him Lachmann’s 1937 recording of a Samaritan singing. The man excitedly calls in his wife from the kitchen where she prepares lunch.

It is revealed that the singer in the recording is the woman’s estranged father and, as a result, she does not wish to hear it. At the end of the recording, the man enthusiastically declares it a treasure. His wife explains that her father “left my mother when she was 22 years old. Only. Very young.” Yet she laments, “I wish that I could only dream of him.”

In Jerusalem, Manna visits the home of a young Moroccan Jewish woman who sings as she prepares a meal in her small kitchen. As she chooses spices, the woman’s voice combines with the sound of a pot on the stovetop simmering while a man plays a banjo in the kitchen corner.

She explains that “Israeli society tries to flatten, annihilate and erase cultures of diaspora.” The woman held on to her Moroccan heritage with the help of her grandmother, who preserved its culture “within her own four walls.”

The musical conversations and performances are interspersed with short, reenacted scenes of everyday life performed by Manna’s family within the context of their home in Jerusalem.

In one scene, Manna’s father ruminates to his daughter on Zionism’s political history while he laces his up his shoes and packs a gym bag near a window. His demeanor is humble and endearing while the anecdote he relays is ironic and captivating.

He stands up and smiles at his daughter, who is offscreen nearby the camera, telling her they’ll talk more later because he needs to go for a swim. “Yalla bye,” he says, continuing to smile as he walks out of the house.

The familial scenes, like the movie as a whole, are understated yet expansive in their historical and political implications.

In another scene, Manna narrates Lachmann’s broadcast on the liturgical music of Kurdish Jews as the camera introduces an office of Economics and Real Estate Appraisal in Jerusalem. Land expropriation maps hang on the walls as a man, sitting at a desk, begins playing a saz (a stringed instrument) while singing in Hebrew, reading the lyrics off his computer screen.

As he sings, the camera slowly pans from his computer screen to reveal the papers on his desk, which read “Judea and Samaria Area Supreme Council,” a term used by the Israeli settler movement to refer to the West Bank. A sleepy shot through the window blinds reveals an Israeli settlement in the distance.

The steady yet unflinching camera accompanied by the man’s emphatic singing is indicative of the director’s insights into the quotidian as well as political — and perhaps how within Palestine, the quotidian is always political.

Disrupts the constructions of Zionism

The film travels around historic Palestine — from a Bedouin tribe in the southern Naqab desert, families in the northern Galilee and communities in the West Bank — despite the many modern Israeli restrictions and barriers.

The Israeli military occupation is shown with harrowing landscape shots — such as Israel’s infamous wall at twilight dividing the land — as well as personal anecdotes related to its restrictions.

The film, however, defies barriers by connecting these spaces. In a director’s statement, Manna said that her film attempts to imagine “an alternative form of sovereignty, one that disrupts the constructions of Zionism, and renders visible the complex interdependency of identities that were falsely made discrete from one another.”

The film achieves this feat with a lyrical complexity. The mostly static yet carefully composed shots — as well as skillful sound design — allow the music of each performance to resonate.

The style also forefronts the bodily movements involved in each performance, such as the rhythm of hands as they play drums. Manna has said that she is interested in “an alternative form of narrative or memory, one that is through a libidinal form or muscle memory.”

The final scene begins with a close-up of a man playing traditional Palestinian wedding music on a shabbaba (flute), breathing vigorously while synthesized music surrounds him. The camera pans to the right to reveal a man with a wide grin who begins singing in a deep and powerful voice. The pan then shows a keyboard player before cutting to a wide shot of the three men as they perform a lively song in a concrete house under construction, bathed in natural light.

After a few verses, an apparent passerby dressed in a suit enters the scene, dancing joyously with his arms raised. He continues to dance by himself to the music — a mixture of traditional flute, fast electronic beat and energetic singing — for a minute and a half, his arms raised the entire time.

This scene culminates Manna’s process with a true celebration of the physical, sensorial experience of music.

Daryl Meador is a filmmaker and educator based in New York City. Twitter: @yalladaryl