‘Foragers’ review: staple cinema in more ways than one

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Funded by several arts organizations, Berlin-based Palestinian sculptor and filmmaker Jumana Manna’s hybrid documentary “Foragers” investigates the centuries-old Palestinian practice of gathering wild foods such as the grass za’atar and the delicacy ‘akkoub, a thistle – as a plant with medicinal properties, and how these traditions conflict with Israeli nature conservation laws that essentially criminalize the Palestinian culture of herb-picking. Including unexpected humor, Manna’s gentle approach is more poetic meditation than commercial non-fiction. “Foragers” has previously been exhibited as an installation at the Berkeley Museum of Art in California, one of the sponsors. It should be welcome in other museums and media centers.

Israel declared the wild za’atar a protected species in 1977. Manna uses archival footage to show that soon after, a kibbutz in the Galilee began growing the herb and selling it to Palestinians, along with to export it to Arab countries, using packaging to make it appear as a Palestinian product. Meanwhile, ‘akkoub landed on the protection list nearly 30 years later. His interviewees argue that it is only because the Arabs like him very much.

With the most common foraging in the hills of East Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Golan Heights, the film offers beautiful landscape shots. Among the funniest visuals are long shots of people visible only as colors floating among the green, then disappearing from view altogether when the Israeli Nature Patrol arrives on the scene.

It seems that it is mainly older Palestinians who are arrested and prosecuted for their foraging activities. Penalties include heavy fines or jail time. The scripted confrontations between the unseen prosecutors and the unrepentant pickers who claim they collect the plants for household use represent the film’s hybrid aspect. Manna wrote the dialogues with lawyer and scholar Rabea Eghbarieh, and they describe foraging as an act of survival and anti-colonial resistance, the continuation of a culinary tradition dating back hundreds of years. Exasperated foragers also point out that their skill in cutting the thorny ‘akkoub helps the plant to regenerate.

As in some of his short films, Manna also appeals to his own family, showing his university parents Aziza and Adel deriving great satisfaction from their gathering of a multitude of wild plants and herbs not far from their home in Jerusalem- East. She also follows Aziza on a visit to her older sisters in the Galilee where they share a delicious meal of herb breads and cooked ‘akkoub.

Zeidan Hajib is another memorable forager. Accompanied by his six lively dogs and carrying the tools to cut the ‘akkoub in his backpack, the old man knows the best places to collect his contraband. Living among the ruins of a stone shed on land once cultivated by the filmmaker’s grandparents, he represents the historical intimacy of Palestinians with nature.

Manna, a rising figure in the art world who studied in Jerusalem, California and Norway, is working here again with collaborators from her 2018 documentary “Wild Relatives,” including cinematographer Marte Vold and editor Katrin Ebersohn. Rashad Becker’s playful score and sound mixing make parts of the film feel like a chase between the foragers and the Israeli patrol.

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