Music as a Trope of Palestinian Landscape

Sevara Pan of the 2016 Berlinale Talent Press reviews the Palestinian documentary A MAGICAL SUBSTANCE FLOWS INTO ME.


A MAGICAL SUBSTANCE FLOWS INTO ME (Palestinian Territories), showing in the Berlinale Forum, opens with a crackly recording of the voice of Robert Lachmann, the Jewish-German ethnomusicologist who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and initiated a radio programme to explore the musical traditions of the various ethnic groups of Palestine. Inspired by Lachmann’s radio programme, Palestinian artist Jumana Manna sets out in search of the musical diversity in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Manna follows in the footsteps of Lachmann but instead of inviting the musicians to the studio, she visits them in their homes and places of worship.

The film achieves an incredible degree of intimacy by engaging with the musicians within their own homes, in their living room, places of work, and often in their kitchen where warm yet difficult conversations transpire. Here politics are inextricable from music and life, present while they prepare dishes or make traditional coffee. Through the kitchen window, we look onto a conversation of an Israeli family talking about their Iraqi friend Yitzhak who sings the songs of Umm Kulthum to remain optimistic through his political exile. Music not only aids the narrative but propels it. What do songs sound like when performed by the Kurdish, Moroccan, Samaritans or Bedouins in today’s Israel and Palestine? Apart from revisiting the songs, the film returns to the musical history of the local ethnic groups of Palestine. Once immersed in the soundscape of the Palestinian vernacular music, I found the instructive voice-overs of the history lessons at times jarring me out of the cinematic experience. Although these lessons were insightful, staying within the moment of them singing or playing the rababa and saz would have created a more lasting impression of the music.