Faya Dayi, 2021.
Written and directed by Jessica Beshir.
A spiritual journey into the highlands of Harar, immersed in the rituals of khat, a leaf Sufi Muslims chewed for centuries for religious meditations – and Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop today.
Jessica Beshir’s feature documentary debut certainly isn’t the liveliest sit to be sought out by inquisitive festival audiences – or tired critics – but the Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker’s evocative monochromatic tapestry nevertheless provides a uniquely haunting glimpse at the potential for addiction to destroy lives, families, and communities.
In Ethiopia, Sufi Imams have historically chewed the khat leaf in pursuit of a euphoric high known as “Merkhana.” Due to the ease with which it can be grown over other crops such as coffee, khat has fast become Ethiopia’s chief crop export, resulting in it being more widely consumed by the everyday citizen. Yet the chewable stimulant’s addictive properties make it as much a social blight as a social lubricant, providing an unsavoury means of escape for those dissatisfied with their lives.
Shot largely in the city of Harar, Faya Dayi packs its two-hour runtime with flavourful, wide-ranging stories from the mostly-anonymous locals, who bear their dreams and heartbreaks to the camera. One man laments khat supplanting coffee’s primacy in the region, while a youngster desperately wants to save enough money to embark on a treacherous series of boat trips to Europe in pursuit of a better life.
Others speak more reverently of their homeland; one man cryptically asks a hopeful traveller, albeit through the haze of khat, “Can you get the same love from a stepmother?.” There’s a distinct push-and-pull of perspectives throughout the film, between those keen to seek prosperity elsewhere, and those who feel so profoundly rooted to the place they were born that they can’t countenance moving.
But the levelling, narcotising power of khat is unmistakable, Beshir’s film rife with quietly disturbing imagery of somnambulant citizens in the throes of a high they’re forever chasing. One subject says, “Everyone chews to get away. Their flesh is here, but their soul is gone.”
Particularly agonising is the tale of young Mohammed, one of the few outright Characters in the film, whose father “becomes a different person” on the stuff, while Mohammad fears following in his footsteps and succumbing to the darkness himself.
Beshir expertly pairs these intimately human passages with more broadly unsettling visages of men industriously picking and packing khat, and the common sight of folk casually chewing on it becomes increasingly wearisome throughout.
There’s also periodic engagement with the wider political picture, of the Oromo people’s ongoing, near-50-year conflict with the Ethiopian government, where state-sponsored murder and false imprisonment are said to be commonplace.
It adds up to a rich and singularly powerful account that spills atmosphere from its every pore. Beshir offers up a mesmeric aesthetic feast that captures unnerving imagery with a keenly individualistic sense of style, often juxtaposed with personal monologues, poetic readings, and native song.
Without a distinct narrative trajectory to speak of, this is more an experiential “slice-of-life” doc that thrives on its sense of place and exquisitely photographed sights. Beshir, who is also her own DP, serves up an eye-watering platter of impactful visuals, even if the staging of some segments – especially when the camera is pointed close at two friends laying down, talking – undermines its own authenticity as a documentary.
When the camera gets too close, there’s an air of contrivance, that the director is simply intruding too far for the exchange to be entirely organic. As such the periodic intermingling of seemingly scripted or part-fiction elements breaks distractingly from the otherwise iron-clad realism, the over-stylised excesses sure to prove glaring to avid doc-watchers.
Tactile sound design aids the pic’s airy thrall, as does an ambient musical score that reflects the anxious ebb and euphoric flow of the Merkhana itself. As an audio-visual collage, it vacillates between soothing and disquieting.
Despite the abundance of memorable images, though, at two hours in length it does rather outstay its welcome, ironically inflicting its own narcotic effect on the viewer which may leave them slogging their way through the back-end. Its length absolutely blunts the overall effect, as it could’ve lost a decent chunk of its runtime without sacrificing much – if any – of its visceral power or educational merit.
Faya Dayi doesn’t always sustain full interest across two overlong hours, but its gorgeous monochrome tableau offers an intoxicatingly dreamlike window into a community hobbled by addiction.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.