Film review: ‘Foragers’

Who decides how land is used? That’s the question at the heart of so many conversations in the Adirondacks around housing, zoning, water rights, indigeneity and what it means to be “forever wild.” It’s also the question at the heart of “Foragers” (2022) by Berlin-based artist Jumana Manna. Her documentary film is screening free for one night only at the St. Eustace Episcopal Church in Lake Placid this Tuesday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m.

“Foragers” is an intimate look at how Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank preserve their culinary heritage by enduring surveillance, harassment, detention, extortion and dozens of smaller but no less dreadful injustices.

The film is shot in the Golan heights, the Sea of Galilee, and in East Jerusalem, where Manna was born. Her family’s homeland provides the landscape of this mostly documentary film, but “Foragers” also uses fiction to construct reliable police interviews between Palestinians and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that governs their right to forage, thereby eating away at their history.

Naturally, it opens with a drone shot. The effect isn’t sweeping majesty, but more like a lurid hovering. Even with its many beautifully indulgent passages — dogs running in a field, her aging parents sunbathing on a hazy coast, old friends peeling spiny green stalks with their hands and just vibing — a low hum of tension pervades every scene, especially those that do not take place inside a person’s home. The short moments of peace outdoors are often interrupted by the whup of helicopters, four-wheelers roaring through meadows, gravel crunching beneath the tires of cop cars.

It begins to unfold how certain banned plants — the artichoke-like akkoub, or za’atar (wild hyssop) — are pursued, harvested, smuggled, cherished, sold and prepared with distinction by Arab families. Foragers who are caught make their case to the camera in scenes that explore what the inside of interrogation rooms sound like to a people so policed. The question underlying each interview: How long until the fines turn to prison time? Graciously, the acting in these one-shot dialogues is purposefully stilted to tip the viewer off that the documentary is veering into a scripted composite of lived experience.

It is, after all, an art film. Jumana Manna is a sculptor and a filmmaker (“Forgers” is her third and latest film). When it was on view at the Museum of Modern Art PS1, the exhibition included 19 other works of sculpture the critic Rana Issa called “playful and ghostlike.” There’s a playful and ghostlike mood to “Foragers” as well. The fact that Israel’s bureaucracies seem to know so much about their subjects’ movements cannot compete with the fact that Manna’s knows her subject — home — better than any spy ever could. The photography throughout is gorgeous, but entirely natural, authentic and memorable. There’s a scene where the camera is inside a herd of sheep as it moves like liquid through the field. Cows lie in the wind. Plants grow wild.

And then a woman on her way to look for food bushwhacks beneath a highway she can’t use. The word itself never appears in the film, but the apartheid is everywhere. We are constantly reminded of the surveillance, the fact that a man’s every movement could be used against him in some supposed court of law. Though entirely nonviolent, the perspective here is angrier than it is sad, which — like the film’s closing image — gives it an edge. The extinction politics of “Forgers” is personal, specific, and pointed, so it’s a shame to have to wonder if that’s why the Wexner Center recently had to cancel a panel on which Manna had been asked to sit called, ironically enough, “The Creative Future of Food,” part a series called (wait for it) “dialogues on art and social change.”

Much like the film which kicked off this series in Lake Placid back on April 9 (“My Tree” by Jason Sherman), the climax of “Foragers” is an unscripted interview between the filmmaker and an Israeli official, an akkoub farmer who oversees (legal) production of a plant that can nowadays only be obtained through commodification. The conversation underscores the hypocrisy of a policy that not only bans the collection of a wild plant but transfers complete ownership of the crop’s market to Israelis and away from Palestinians.

Manna asks the farmer, “Why are these Akkoub farms only owned by Jews and not Arabs?

“Arabs don’t have land insurance. If there’s crop failure, it’s a total loss. Here in the kibbutz, they’re insured.”

The farmer has answers to all her questions at first, but as Manna follows up time and again, the conversation becomes more uncomfortable, admissions are made, and the quiet becomes loud.

“Akkoub and za’atar are banned,” the farmer says, smiling. “Because Arabs like them very much.”

This screening of “Foragers” (graciously donated to the series by the filmmaker herself) is important not only because the work is illuminating, challenging and beautifully made, but it’s also an opportunity for Adirondackers to contribute to the cause of helping Palestinian families to evacuate from war-torn Gaza. Donations will be collected to support four Palestinian GoFundMe campaigns created to give suffering families the chance to escape the unprecedented violence that has ravaged their densely populated enclave (Gaza is 141 square miles in size, whereas the Adirondack park is over 9,000 square miles) for the last seven months. As the Israeli military continues to threaten an all-out ground invasion of the city of Rafah, families in Gaza have become even more desperate to escape, and your contribution can help save lives.

Who decides whose land belongs to whom? What structures hold up that power? How does it feel to be subjected to a system you have no say in? If these questions have been on your mind lately, this exclusive screening of “Foragers” is where you want to be this Tuesday.

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Tyler Barton lives in Saranac Lake.


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