In 2012, an agricultural research centre in Aleppo was forced to relocate to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon due to the escalating war in Syria. Unable to move its gene bank, the centre, known as ICARDA, created a duplicate by withdrawing their back up seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and painstakingly re-cultivating their collection, before returning seeds to the vault. With striking imagery and often meditative sequences, the film maps this network of exchange between three countries and teases out the broader geopolitical context which enabled the transaction.
Wild Relatives subtly infers the backdrop of international policies and practices from the 1960s on that facilitated a move towards industrialized farming in developing countries, one that privileged high yielding crops over local wild varieties, and in many cases has placed farmers in subservience to state or corporate interests.
The film also foregrounds the lives and livelihoods of individuals, from the young Syrian refugee women who work in the fields to local farmers who have been forced to transform their arable land into more economically viable refugee camps, to those pursuing alternative, “ground-up” planting practices with heirloom seed varieties.
Wild Relatives grew out of Manna’s interest in archives and, in particular, taxonomic approaches to nature that have “accelerated material and social changes to the life cycles of plants and their allies, small farmers.” Prevalent in the nineteenth century, such methods were ostensibly an imposition of colonial mechanisms of control over the “unruly” landscapes and flora of the Middle East. They are the precursor to contemporary gene banks and, as Shela Sheikh has noted, also facilitated the extraction and transfer of plant resources to the West.
Manna explores the dual nature of the archive as a mechanism of preservation that may also precipitate erasure: a ‘fixing’ or freezing in time of a particular body of knowledge or, in this case, collection of seeds placed into a state of limbo. Despite many significant developments made with the goals of alleviating poverty and hunger, the pursuit of high yielding seeds in the work of organizations like the ones featured in the film has also resulted in a diminishment of biodiversity.
A timely and important work, Wild Relatives offers no easy answers but opens a field of inquiry into the entanglement of the Syrian crisis, the impacts of various agricultural histories and practices, as well as the movement of people, resources and capital across national boundaries.