A still from Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me. 2015. Video (color, sound), 67 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2022 Jumana Manna

Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me screened here September 28–October 12, 2022. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening, beginning October 19, 2022.

After embarking on filmmaking early on in her career, Jumana Manna has developed a multidisciplinary practice that encompasses video and sculpture. Her works dig into focused topics to produce narratives that expose how history and its accompanying value systems are constituted. Manna traverses the limits, assumptions, and contradictions surrounding the preservation of particular stories, sites, and human and non-human entities—as determined by the varied institutions of academia, archeology, science, and the law—to open up new possibilities for understanding. While all archives, by definition, exclude, they can also align with or push against particular systems of power. The small and the big come to a head in many of Manna’s works. For instance, her recent films have taken on gene banking, industrial farming, and the effects of environmental legislation in contrast with independent preservationist efforts and the traditions of everyday people in the Levant region. Two of these films, Wild Relatives (2018) and Foragers (2022) are currently on view in Manna’s MoMA PS1 exhibition, Jumana Manna: Break, Take, Erase, Tally, alongside a series of new and existing sculptures.

As she prepared for her exhibition at MoMA PS1, I spoke with Manna about her film A Magical Substance Flows into Me, and how this earlier piece relates to her more recent films and sculptural installations. A Magical Substance speaks to the myriad implications of the archive, including how it can fix knowledge around traditions—in this case through music—even as they transform. In the film, we see the role individuals play in keeping certain ways of life alive, and how simple gestures can maintain diversity and preserve complexity in the face of hegemonic forces. Join us in October for the next installment of the Hyundai Card Video Views series, which considers artists’ engagement with a technology that has become central to our daily lives.
—Ruba Katrib, Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, MoMA PS1

Ruba Katrib: I want to start by asking how you came to the material in A Magical Substance Flows into Me.

Jumana Manna: The film is based on a radio program by Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist who moved from Berlin to Jerusalem in 1936 to create an archive of oriental music. He thought that Jerusalem would be a perfect place for the archive because of the different people who have come there over the years for its religious significance in a diversity of traditions.

So, in addition to his research and archiving work, Lachmann pitched programs to the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which was a colonial radio station established by the British. The various music he researched, of various Palestinian traditions and Mizrahi-Jews (Jews who immigrated to Palestine from the Arab and Islamic world) featured on this 12-part radio show that was aired from Jerusalem in 1936–37. Once a week, he would invite one of the groups living in and around the city to come to the radio station. He prepared a lecture about what is unique to their tradition, and what connects their music to those of other groups. It was an ethnographic study that focused on the specifics of music, its histories, and rhythms, whether it's secular or liturgical music, and what role it plays in the society. After delivering the lecture, he would invite the musicians to perform.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me is based on these broadcasts, in that it reenacts this multipart program by visiting musicians from these ethnic and religious groups, inviting them to respond to the recordings made 80 years prior.

Poster for Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me, 2015

Poster for Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me, 2015

A still from Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me. 2015

A still from Jumana Manna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me. 2015

The film has a scene in which a dabke musician talks about not needing notation. And notation seems to be a running thread throughout the film. There’s a dichotomy between the tradition of being passed down orally versus a written or a recorded tradition.

Lachmann was strongly against the usage of notation for oriental music. He argued that Arabic music is too emotional to be written down, and that its quarter-tone system doesn’t match the Western system of notation that’s based on the octave.

Oud player and composer Wasif Jawhariyyeh, like many other Arab musicians of the time, disagreed and was open to adapting this system of notation, because he felt it was a way to record oral traditions that were being performed less and less during this early modern period.

I thought it was telling that the local was much more open to hybridity and so-called Western forms, and didn’t see a problem in using and adopting those forms to a local context, whereas Lachmann, the Orientalist, wanted to see the traditions remain separate, “pure,” and untouched. In a way, the film’s response to Lachmann is to say the only true idea of tradition is hybridity. It’s something that’s in constant flux and change.

In a way, you’re creating your own archive of music that people are performing, but the conditions are so different.

This was a very valuable thing to come across. The double bind of a lot of the archival materials that I deal with is that they are “preserved” documents of a culture that might have changed or not exist in the same way in the present, but remain as fragments in archives that have participated in the history of erasure. In this case, the National Library of Israel, which is full of Palestinian books and documents that were confiscated during or after the 1948 war. That is one of the contradictions of institutional preservation and archival practices that I’m interested in.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

What is really striking about your film is how the musicians you’re recording, who are mostly religious and ethnic minorities, challenge the oversimplified portrayal of cultural traditions and identities in the region. It’s fascinating to hear these people speak to that complexity.

Neither Palestinian nor Israeli society is monolithic. Palestinian society has many groups within it. The three largest ones, historically speaking, are the Bedouin, the urban, and the rural communities, and each has a set of musical traditions that are diverse in their own right.

Then there are smaller, lesser-known groups like the Samaritans, who maintain a very old form of Judaism that branched off 3,000 years ago from what is today the Jewish religion. The Samaritans believe that the Temple Mount was in Nablus, and that’s where many still live today. Their language is Samaritan, their liturgy is Samaritan. There are the Coptic Christians featured in Lachmann’s program, amongst numerous other Eastern churches that weren’t, alongside a number of other minorities: Druze, Circasian, Armenians, and more. The history of the modern state of Israel is a settler-colonial state based on immigration; populating Palestine with Jews from all over the world.

Around half of Israeli society immigrated from the Arab and Islamic world, but in the early decades of the establishment of the state of Israel [they] were forced to stop speaking Arabic, and discouraged from continuing to perform their music, in order to become part of this melting pot of the new Israeli society that was modeled on a European identity. What Lachmann’s project, perhaps accidentally, did was to challenge this Arab-Jew binary that was already entrenched in the 1930s with the Zionist project. And today this binary continues to be taken as a given.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

Food is also a main character in your films, particularly in A Magical Substance Flows into Me. There’s a lot of cooking and eating.

A lot of the film is a restaging of my first encounters with these musicians, when I went to visit them in their homes. I was visiting people in their different localities, to avoid suggesting the idea of “congregation,” as the country is highly segregated today. Very often when you walk into somebody’s home, they ask you, “What do you want to drink or eat?” So it just happened that a lot of these first encounters took place in the kitchen. It wasn’t something that was written into the film.

But the food and eating came to make sense, and was kept in the editing, as the film is very much about telling history through the senses; through muscle memory, sound, and taste.

This creates an intimacy that I find really revealing. In the film, your parents are recurring characters who also contribute to a sense of intimacy.

My parents are the stars of A Magical Substance as well as Foragers, my latest film. I wanted them to be there because it was part of me trying to break down this hierarchy of ethnography of experts and their subjects that was strongly present in Lachmann’s project. I wanted to do a self-ethnography while also doing an ethnographic study of the other groups in the film.

That year my father was still writing his book, Nakba and Survival: The Story of Palestinians Who Remained in Haifa and the Galilee, 1948–1956; a lot of his book is based on oral testimonies that he collected over the decades. There is a nice overlap between my work and the work that my father was doing as a historian, in which he gives a lot of value to oral testimonies. In earlier times, historians would’ve dismissed these testimonies as undependable and inaccurate—people’s memories are always faltering—but more and more there’s an interest in the oral, and I think it connects us and our work.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

A Magical Substance Flows into Me