When Jessica Beshir was a teen, her family fled the political unrest in Ethiopia for the relative calm of Mexico. During return trips to her native land as a budding filmmaker, over a period of 10 years, she captured what she saw, in richly textured black-and-white. Faya Dayi is the mesmerizing result, a nonfiction work of sensory immersion that’s part anthropology, part poetry.
Screening in New York in the New Directors/New Films lineup, Beshir’s first feature-length film braids together several threads, some more tightly than others. As it explores the walled city of Harar, its surrounding fields, and the farming of khat, a plant whose leaves are chewed for their psychoactive effect, it can at times feel diffuse. At its strongest, the documentary fuses matters of myth and tradition with questions of economic change, political strife and personal longing — notably in the fine alchemy of its closing sequences.
At times languorous and diffuse, but always hypnotically beautiful.
At the center of it all is khat, a plant that’s less dependent on rain than coffee and has displaced it to become the area’s main cash crop, transforming the landscape Beshir knew as a child. “My father and I used to grow coffee on our land,” a farmer says, sipping a cup brewed from beans he’s just roasted over a small outdoor fire. For him “the scent of coffee has changed” even as it evokes memories — a dichotomy at the heart of the film.
Faya Dayi, which takes its title from a hymn sung by Oromo farmers when they harvest khat, follows the plant from the fields to the trucks to the sheds where men, women and boys clean and sort it into bundles, and on to the night markets with their bustle of trucks. Oromo field workers speak of their people’s continuing, generations-old struggle and the abuses they’ve endured at the hands of several regimes — another kind of memory in the film’s dark and lustrous tapestry.
“Memories, that is all you travel with,” one young man tells an adolescent boy, Mohammed, the film’s central figure, when he asks about the practicalities of emigrating. Having once attempted the journey, the former plans to complete the trip to Egypt, and then across the sea to Europe. In another discussion of migration, an older man voices strong opinions. “We shouldn’t have to perish in the deserts and the seas to change our lives,” he says. But for many of Harar’s youth, the options seem slim beyond working in the khat industry and becoming a user.
Merkhana, the high from khat, is considered a state of grace and is part of age-old rituals in the region. Woven through the film is the Sufi fable of Azurkherlaini, whose search for Maoul Hayat, the water of eternal light, leads to the creation of khat, a gift from God. Here again memory is a crucial element: Those who chew khat will remember the solitary ones, those without children, who might otherwise be forgotten.
In contrast with this stirringly beautiful myth is the day-to-day reality that khat use can turn into a disruptive addiction, a social problem that Mohammed and others comment on in voiceover. (To what extent these are their impromptu words or the filmmaker’s writing is unclear; much of the film, which eschews identifying titles or explanation, unfolds with the polished sensibility of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid.)
Mohammed, whose mother made that trip across the sea long ago, suffers under the mood swings of his father, who’s “losing it with khat.” Still, the boy is curious. To an elderly devotee of the drug, Mohammed wonders aloud where it takes him. “Don’t fantasize about it,” the man warns him. “The world we’ve carved for ourselves is an empty and lonely hideout.” Women too endure the fallout of men’s khat habits, as revealed in voiceover conversations. With one pointed exception, women’s faces are unseen in Faya Dayi, perhaps another, unspoken commentary.
From the opening scene, with its song of insects and its vision, in silvery B&W, of a figure emerging from a landscape in a joyful dancing lope, the film moves on lyrical currents, its visuals and soundscape enveloping. The writer-director-cinematographer’s eye for detail is exquisite: the stir of curtains in a breeze, the attentive birds atop one of Harar’s ancient walls, and the hands in motion — working the leaves, exchanging cash, stirring a simmering pot, making the spongy flatbread injera. From the cacophony of voices in a large workers’ shed to the barely-there melody of a sad song of love and the tender pulsing of the score, the aural component of the film deepens its tug of emotion between the connection to place and the longing to escape.
Some sequences have an apt languor, while others feel distractingly artful; the film would have benefited from more concision. But as Faya Dayi moves toward its final epiphany, this meditation on memory elegantly connects Beshir’s quest with the people onscreen. In a local movie house, an unused film projector becomes a talisman. On a road at dawn a figure appears, transmuting heartache and yearning into a wider world — maybe not the water of eternal light, but a place of endings and beginnings.