Jumana Manna’s film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me from 2016 is a powerful example of an artistic excavation, examination and critical re-enactment of an archive containing material that is part of a contested history, namely the history of Palestine. In an interview with Sheyma Buali, titled Expanding the Archive, the artist describes her “desire for an archaeological approach” in view of the difficult status of Palestinian heritage: «for those nations or minorities whose history and culture is under threat of erasure, the need to assert ones [sic] presence is not an uncommon one» (Manna, in: Buali, 2013). For Manna, countering this threat means searching for and «awakening forgotten pockets» of history that tend to be excluded by hegemonic narratives (Manna, in: Buali 2013). This is true for many artists who are ascribed to the so-called “archival turn” (Downey 2015). Yet, I argue that Manna’s work goes beyond this category that was coined for artists creating “critical archives”, which Anthony Downey describes as alternative and often speculative archival forms resulting from a «co-option of archives both as primary resources and structuring devices» (Downey 2015, p. 13). By analyzing Manna’s film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, I will show that her work could better be described as archival critique. The film, which is an engagement with the archive of Robert Lachmann, performs several kinds of archival critique: a critique of the hierarchy between linear history writing and sensorial lived experience, a critique of the static dualism between researcher and object of research, and a critique of the constructions of “pure” traditions and singular “origins”.
The film starts with a black screen and a crackling sound recording: “Meeting of the advisory committee of the broadcasting service in December 1936”. We will learn more about the man behind this voice, Robert Lachmann, as the film develops: he was a Jewish-German ethnomusicologist who had fled from Berlin to Jerusalem in 1935, where he did research on Eastern-Jewish and Palestinian music. He established a programme for the Palestinian radio in which he invited one of the communities he studied to perform on a weekly basis. The prologue of the film is the only moment in which we hear his own voice. It functions as the introduction to his project and his struggles: “Gentlemen, I have invited you because of the shocking attacks and protests directed against our program and especially our musical program both, by the Arab and the Hebrew newspapers. You know, [sic] that we have spared no trouble in securing the very best and noblest representants of music to be found in Palestine. Still our ardent efforts have been met with ill feeling and with insulting criticism. I would ask you now, to give me your most valuable advice as to possible changes in our programs and our method”.
The fact that we hear him, at the very beginning of the film, mentioning this criticism directed against his Oriental Music programme, followed by his asking for advice, gives us a hint that Manna wants to give an answer to his question.
The film’s structure functions like a layering of different narrations that are presented as singular perspectives resonating with Lachmann’s question, but also resonating with each other. Untangling the carefully composed film scenes cannot be easy, first, because the scenes are only distinct on a visual level, but connected through an overlapping of aural levels, and, second, because historic and contemporary narratives are equally connected and intertwined. This connectedness is represented through the protagonists, objects, and spaces that could be read with Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation as the «rhizome of a multiple relationship with the Other» (Glissant 1990, p. 16).
In one set of archival scenes, Manna performs the role of a researcher going to the archive. We see Manna’s hands going through Lachmann’s manuscripts and hear her reading excerpts. These static frames mimic her research perspective: a high angle shot framing her field of vision on the archival material. In the first archival scene, Lachmann’s idea of preserving “pure” Arab music traditions becomes clear when Manna reads from the off: “There are Arabs, especially among the educated classes, who consider themselves performers, who think that times have changed, and they want a new kind of music. But I believe that no, instead of the real thing, we obtain a hybrid production, typical neither of East nor West and shallow like ditch water. We should instead encourage pure and unspoiled, genuine local music”.
Manna explains in different interviews that Lachmann, similar to other European scholars of that time, was influenced by Orientalist thinking and therefore imagined Palestine as a «pure, unspoiled Bible Land» (Manna, in: Guggenheim 2015). The fact that Lachmann’s patronizing statements about “these people” – who according to him are ignorant of their own music – are re-enacted with the calm female voice of a young Palestinian artist makes the Orientalism in his tone and vocabulary even more obvious. This re-enactment of his voice appears at different points throughout the film: like an archival thread from the off, we hear Manna reading his notes as a voice-over in scenes that visually happen outside of the National Library of Israel where his archive is kept.
In a set of musical fieldwork scenes, Manna functions as a mediator between Lachmann’s archival material and those communities whose music traditions he studied. These scenes can be read as the knots of Manna’s filmic journey through present day Israel/Palestine. Using the everyday and the home – which according to Manna is at the heart of any colonial struggle – as the backdrop of the performances is not only a clear difference to Lachmann’s studio recordings; the many kitchen scenes also foreground the parallels between music and food as two “magical substances” connected to corporeal memory (Manna, in: Atallah 2015). In some of the scenes, Manna shortly appears in a conversation with her protagonists, telling them about Lachmann’s archive of sound recordings, before sounding a specific recording to them on her iPhone. The longest shots within these scenes, though, are static frames giving space to the uninterrupted performances of songs: a father and his son, singing and playing the tin and the darbuka (Yemenite wedding music/ Central Israel); an old couple listening to Lachmann’s recording of a man who appears to be the woman’s father; a Samaritan community chanting prayers (cantillation of Samaritans/ West Bank); a young couple singing and playing the mandolin in a small kitchen (music from the Western Arab World/ Jerusalem); a group of men in the desert trying to revive their musical memory on a string instrument called rababa (Bedouin music/ Southern Israel); three men in a real estate office singing and playing on a string instrument called saz (Liturgical Songs of Kurdish Jews/ Jerusalem); an oud duo performing in a music studio (Arab urban music/ Jerusalem); a rural group of men playing on a flute instrument called shabbaba (Wedding music/ Galilee). The descriptions in brackets only appear as final film credits, which means that the protagonists and their surroundings are their own markers of location.
In the case of father and son performing, there is no context given apart from their performance. After two close-ups on the hands and drum instruments, we see both men sitting on chairs next to each other. The older man performs from memory, while the younger man looks at a book – which tells us that Lachmann’s vision of “pure” Arab music without “Western” notation systems failed. Those viewers who are unfamiliar with this music or with Yemenite Arabic cannot understand that the men perform a Yemenite Jewish song. Instead of understanding, they can listen. Manna deliberately keeps the music performances without subtitles to give more space to the “magic” of sensation. The title of the film – which refers to music being a “magical substance” that can be experienced through the body – was inspired by Michael Taussig’s What Color is the Sacred? (Manna, in: Guggenheim 2015). In this book, Taussig speaks about colour as a “polymorphous magical substance”, associating it not only to accounts of hallucinogens, but also to shamanic rituals of singing and dancing (Taussig 2009, p. 47). In Taussig’s writing, as well as in Manna’s film, the “sacred” animating these forms of magic can be understood as a connecting energy flowing into and out of bodies. By searching for and giving space to this magic of music, a corporeal sensation that is irreducible to written text, the film expands Lachmann’s project of promoting «Oriental music» as a tool for «a better understanding between Jews and Arabs» (Lachmann 1937).
Even in scenes where Manna reads Lachmann’s notes, the music performances are much more than illustrations of his descriptions. This independence of the protagonists from the archival voice becomes especially evident in the real estate office scene: we hear Lachmann’s re-enacted voice from the off, speaking of “the religious song of Kurdish Jews”, followed by a description of the “magical ceremony” and the “medicine man of the tribe [who] works himself into a trance by means of intoxicants and bodily movements”. These lines remind of Taussig’s accounts of “magical substances”, but they sound ironic when compared to the visuals: after close-ups on maps of land expropriation, we see two men who seem rather bored, sitting and working on desks with piles of documents. Manna arranges and layers these different narrations without a dominant perspective that categorizes what we see and hear, as it would be the case in Lachmann’s archive. This method is part of Manna’s archival critique throughout: without adding another layer of explanation or translation, she lets those protagonists speak who did not have an uncommented voice in the archive. By arranging the plurality of voices, Manna brings the archive, the protagonists, and the sites in a dialogue, but she also makes dissonances and conflicts perceptible – for example when the men in the office sing “I am God Who Created”, while the camera looks through the half-veiled window, opening up to a landscape with Israeli settlement in the distance.
More gaps and cracks appear in the scene in the Neqab desert, when an older Bedouin man listens to Lachmann’s recordings of a programme on Bedouin Sung Poetry. The man is convinced that this was a peasant playing but cannot give reasons for his assumption. Instead, he tells Manna: “Come, let me show you how a Bedouin plays”. Unfortunately, he had not played the instrument in years – according to him, internet and television are to blame for that – and what follows is therefore not a convincing performance of “how a Bedouin plays”. This can be understood as an answer to Lachmann’s notes read by Manna shortly before: “The recitation of the rababa belongs to the atmosphere of heroic feasts. […] There is reason to doubt whether it will survive the growing influx of modern civilization”. In this case, his guess was right. Apart from that, the scene can also be read as a problematization of essentialist identity constructions.
A third set of scenes function as connecting scenes between archive and fieldwork. One connection appears in the form of auto-ethnographic scenes, where we see Manna and her parents in their family home in Jerusalem: Manna consciously takes herself as an object of study, wanting to break the hierarchy of the researcher’s singular speaking position. In another kind of connecting scenes, we see rural or urban landscapes including the Segregation wall, Jewish settlement, as well as ruins of the past, accompanied either by ambient noise, by Manna reading Lachmann’s notes, or underlined by music that might be broadcasted on radio today. These scenes not only relate Lachmann to Manna, and Manna to the other protagonists of the film, but they also connect the present land to the Palestine where Lachmann lived and worked 80 years before the film was made.
However, all scenes perform some kind of connection between the differences that are sometimes more and sometimes less obvious to the viewer. One illustrative example is the scene with the Jewish Kurdish policeman: he asks Manna if she knows the pickled vegetable mix which is called “mkhalal”. After she affirms, he asks: “How do you guys call it?”. She simply repeats the same word, combined with a small laugh. For, in contrast to him, she knows not only that the food is eaten across the boundaries between religious communities, she also knows that the word – which is actually Arabic and not Hebrew – is used by both communities. Manna’s laugh deconstructs his binary between “we” versus “you guys”, even though her remark is ignored by the policeman. The camera then focuses on the glass of pickled olives in an extreme close-up. It becomes clear that food is the second “magical substance” in the film, even though its function as connecting force has its own gaps and cracks: both magical substances are carriers of bodily memory, with the capacity to transcend borders; but both are also used for establishing and reinforcing identity constructions and boundaries.
Explaining the film in a linear way of going into and out of the archive does not work, because the film itself breaks these boundaries through methods of layering narratives on a visual and aural level. Outside of the archive can be inside the archive, just as the conductor of research can be object of research. The archival critique has even more layers though. Manna also shows the inconsistencies of her protagonists, starting with Lachmann. In the first archival scene, we hear the artist reading, while we see a close-up of her hands holding the handwritten manuscripts: “Although I am still a stranger to this country, I will say a few words about Arab music. If there is anything that entitles me to speak about this subject, it is my love of Arab song and knowledge of its history”. The second image is an even closer view of the handwriting, where we see that he crossed the clause “and the fact that I have been studying it”. Listening to these sentences, as well as seeing his multiple attempts to re-write these words, Manna creates a multifaceted image of an Orientalist scholar who is also reflecting upon and struggling with his own position as a “stranger” in Palestine. It becomes clear that Manna’s critique directed towards Lachmann’s approach is mixed with an empathy towards his love for Arab music and his own struggles. In an interview, the artist also points out the empathy towards Lachmann’s geographic journey, since she sees her own journey from Jerusalem to Berlin as a kind of role reversal and connection in terms of trajectory.
An important difference between Manna’s work and the work of a researcher in general, or an ethnomusicologist in particular, is not the method but the final representation of her research and archival critique as a film. It is essential to mention that this film was actually scripted in most parts: the music encounters are re-staged versions of the first meetings Manna had with the musicians, and the home scenes with her parents are scripted and condensed versions of conversations or situations that had happened in more or less similar ways in the past. The frames are precisely chosen and arranged and mostly static, which according to Manna is also part of the look of an ethnographic study that she wanted the film to have, so that the action within the frame gets the main attention.
Using these filmic methods, Manna not only puts the archival material back into context and up for discussion, but she actively brings it into a dialogue with the present. This becomes most evident in the scene with singer Neta Elkayam. The woman – who is not introduced to the viewer but known to those aware of her artistic career – sings in Moroccan Arabic, while adding spices to the steaming dish on the flame. Her singing is not only accompanied by the sizzling sound of the food, but also by her partner playing on the mandolin. The specificity of this scene is the interview part in the middle, where Elkayam speaks in Hebrew about growing up with Israeli myths and a Moroccan grandmother who broke these myths with the “counter-image”: the layering and entanglement of Judaism, Jewish-Moroccan culture, Arab-hood, and Berber culture. Manna inserts an archival scene where she goes through ethnographic photographs of instruments and reads from Lachmann’s “Music from the Western Arab World”, before the next frame goes back to the kitchen: while the singer continues to cook, Manna reads how Lachmann excuses himself to the listeners that he must use records, since the particular types of music he wants to show are not practiced in Palestine. The shot that follows functions like a direct answer to Lachmann: Elkayam’s partner Amit Hai Cohen starts playing the next song, “Care Not To Forget Me”, accompanied by Elkayam’s singing.
Through Manna’s editing and layering of voices, she brings Lachmann in a conversation with musicians like Elkayam, whom he was not able to invite. By including interview passages and focusing on sensorial experience and bodily memory, Manna foregrounds an approach that is not completely unknown, but much less prominent in the disciplines of history, musicology, or religious studies. In the film, these three disciplines appear as linear and text-centric when we see Manna’s father, the historian Adel Manna, in the process of writing or speaking about his writing, or in the scenes of Lachmann’s manuscripts, and, last but not least, in the scenes with the Samaritan man who speaks about the 600-year-old handwritten book, later followed by a scene where we see an extreme close-up of his finger following the lines he is reading while chanting prayers. These text-centric approaches to history are presented in the film as one option between many, and it becomes clear to the viewer that Manna’s main interest lies in what Hochberg calls “sound memory” (Hochberg 2018, p. 32) and Manna herself calls more broadly “corporeal memory”.
A Magical Substance Flows Into Me can be understood as an archival critique: through filmic methods of scripting and interweaving a multiplicity of voices, it makes cracks and dissonances in Orientalist history writing and in essentialist identity constructions visible and audible and suggests possible ways to fill these gaps. This approach not only opens up a dialogue between Lachmann’s archival material and present-day Israel/Palestine, but also gives space to what could be called “relational narratives” in times and contexts where “root identity” (Glissant 1990, p. 143) is the predominant thought pattern. Manna’s film activates a network full of living archives that, despite obvious dissonances, have the potential to enter into a symphony of many voices.
 Except for the Samaritans living in the West Bank, all protagonists of the film would technically have access to Lachmann’s archive at the National Library of Israel, but none of them knew about either the existence of Lachmann’s radio programme from the 1930s nor the existence of the recordings in this library.
 The fact that they are father and son is not evident in the film but was explained in an interview. Cf. Jumana Manna, virtual interview with the author, June 3, 2020.
 Cf. Jumana Manna, virtual interview with the author, June 3, 2020.
 Lachmann’s letter to Judea Magnes from November 14, 1937, was published in Katz 2003 and quoted in Hochberg 2018. Italics by the author.
 In my virtual interview with Manna, she expressed her empathy towards Lachmann and his story that is full of struggles and contradictions. In a larger study, one would have to go into more detail to discuss the potential and problems of empathy and its relationships to critique.
 In exhibition settings, A Magical Substance Flows into Me is often accompanied by different installation of sculptures, but this would need to be analyzed in a longer paper.
 Cf. Jumana Manna, virtual interview with the author, June 3, 2020.
 Cf. Jumana Manna, virtual interview with the author, June 3, 2020.
 Jumana Manna, virtual interview with the author, June 3, 2020.
Atallah L., Interview with Jumana Manna, in: «Artforum» (September 18, 2015), LINK
Buali S., Expanding the Archive. Jumana Manna in conversation with Sheyma Buali, in: «Ibraaz» 006 (November 2013) LINK
Downey A., Contingency, Dissonance and Performativity. Critical Archives and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art, in: Id. (eds.), Dissonant Archives. Contemporary Visual Cultures and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, I.B. Tauris, London/ New York 2015, pp. 13-42.
Glissant E., Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2010 .
Guggenheim K., Interview with Jumana Manna, in: artist sheet for Chisenhale exhibition (2015), PDF file accessed June 7, 2018. LINK
Hochberg G., Archival Afterlives in a Conflict Zone. Animating the Past in Jumana Manna’s Cinematic Fables of Pre-1948 Palestine, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38 (May 2018), Number 1, pp. 30-42.
Katz R., The Lachmann Problem. An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology, Hebrew University Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2003.
Manna J., A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, 66 min, HD video, 2016. Written and Directed by Jumana Manna; Director of Photography: Daniel Kedem; Sound Recording: Antoine Brochu; Editing: Katrin Ebersohn, Jumana Manna; Sound Design & Mixing: Jochen Jezussek; Colour Correction: Wolfgang Gaube; Executive Producer: Polly Staple.
Taussig M., What Color is the Sacred?, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/ London 2009.
Rebecca John is an art historian, curator and researcher invested in transnational perspectives on art. She studied art history, literature, and media studies at the University of Konstanz, University Paris Diderot, Humboldt University of Berlin, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, before joining the DFG graduate programme “Cultures of Critique” at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, where she is currently writing her PhD thesis on archival critique in contemporary art in the context of Lebanon and Palestine/Israel.