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A Magical Substance Flows into Me:  A Film by Jumana Mana (sic; Manna)    cover photo

A Magical Substance Flows into Me: A Film by Jumana Mana (sic; Manna) 2015

Recommended with reservations

Distributed by Grasshopper Films, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Produced by Grasshopper Film
Directed by Jumana Manna
DVD, color, 88 min.

College - General Adult
Middle East, Music, Culture

Date Entered: 10/31/2017

Reviewed by Sheila Intner, Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College GSLIS at Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA

Traditional music of the Middle East is largely unknown in North America. Jumana Manna’s documentary attempts to describe and illustrate the musical traditions of a variety of Middle Eastern ethnic groups living in modern day Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

In the 1930s, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist named Robert Lachmann documented the music of a number of Palestinian ethnic groups, recording them as they were played on traditional instruments such as the rababa, the saz, the oud, tin cans, and others. Ms. Manna, a Palestinian filmmaker from Jerusalem, follows Lachmann’s path, recording songs and instrumental music performed by Jewish, Arab, and Christian musicians. She visits Kurdish, Moroccan and Yemenite Jews, Samaritans, members of urban and rural Palestinian communities, Bedouins and Coptic Christians, as they exist today within the geographic space of historical Palestine. Prompted by her inquiries, they discuss their music and its history, along with their opinions about whether or not it is likely to continue to be played.

Technically, the film lacks the niceties of professionally made documentaries. It is like a string of disjointed stills rather than the magical flow promised by the title. There are far too many moments spent looking at walls, floors, feet, alleys, stones, earth, and other uninspiring images that viewers are unlikely to identify. These moments do not appear to enhance the performances that follow, despite Ms. Manna’s attempt to put the music into its human context with brief conversations in the kitchens, living rooms, and offices of the interviewees. Viewers see one scene after another that have no connections, identifications, or introductions that could have added value to the music that eventually follows. Although the non-English dialog has excellent subtitles, the narrator’s English is not clear and would have benefited from being subtitled as well.

Academic courses covering the traditional instruments and music of the people who appear in Magical Substance may be enriched from viewing it simply because a goodly proportion of the film is given to actual music, but they will be hard pressed to figure out what they are seeing without having someone explain it to them. The filmmaker provides little guidance, and therein lies the film’s principal weakness as an educational tool. Viewers who lack a knowledgeable guide are not likely to gain much from seeing it.