Faya Dayi, a poetic documentary by director, producer and cinematographer Jessica Beshir, paints a tapestry of haunting recollections and stories about khat that create a vivid picture of the socio-political landscape in Ethiopia.
Dreamtimeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Khat is an addictive leaf that induces altered mental states when chewed. It is used in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia to achieve a Sufi state of transcendence. And that’s the state that this mesmerising, slow-moving documentary aims to induce.
Khat is an important cash crop for the Yemen. As well as to neighbouring countries, it is also air-freighted, for example, into London for sale to expatriate communities. In 2014, 60 tons were imported a week.
Faya Dayi was shot by Ethiopian/Mexican filmmaker Jessica Beshir in her trips home over ten years, noting how khat became more important over time. The film consists of beautifully composed frames and sequences in poetic black and white that give a rich, oil-painting feel to the most ordinary events, with the ambient sound that anyone who has visited that part of the world will recognise.
In Ethiopia, the film focuses on the impact of khat in the everyday lives of the Oromo people in Harar, a khat growing and trading area. It shows the cycle of reaping the crop, bundling the leaves in packed warehouses, selling them on the streets, and moody interiors with transfixed chewers. It weaves individual stories into little narratives using voiceovers, supposedly by the participants themselves, but sounding as if written by the director and spoken by actors.
As well as for its spiritual associations, khat is also chewed by many to forget the hardships of everyday life. But the gist of the film’s voiceovers implies that escaping into a narcotic haze creates a stasis that prevents changes to the country’s repressive society or even any escape.
Faya Dayi is a uniquely beautiful, award-winning documentary that given enough attention, patience and time could create a meditative transcendence like that of its subject. But its non-linear two hours is a rather too-slow, lingering watch.
Faya Dayi had its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and its UK Premiere at the 2021 London Film Festival.