Film Review: ‘Faya Dayi,’ Jessica Beshir’s Ethiopia Docu-Drama About Legend of Khat

Sundance: Jessica Beshir's striking, black and white hybrid docu-drama meditates on the legend of khat, a stimulant leaf, which was found by Sufi Imams in search of eternity. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

IndieWire

‘Faya Dayi’ Review: A Hallucinatory Documentary About Ethiopia’s Most Lucrative Cash Crop

Ethiopian legend has it that khat, a stimulant leaf, was found by Sufi Imams in search of eternity. Inspired by this myth, Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi” is a spiritual journey into the highlands of the walled city of Harar, a place immersed in the rituals surrounding this plant, Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop today. Through the prism of the khat trade, the film weaves a tapestry of intimate stories of people caught between government repression, khat-induced reverie, and treacherous journeys across the Red Sea, and offers a window into the dreams of the youth who long for better lives elsewhere.

For centuries in Ethiopia, the Sufi Muslims of Harar have chewed the khat leaf for the purposes of religious meditation. Over the past three decades, khat consumption has broken out of Sufi circles and entered the mainstream to become a daily ritual among people of all ages, religions and ethnicities, for whom chewing khat is a means to achieve Merkhana — a term that describes the high one gets from what is effectively a psychoactive drug not all that different from Cannabis. It has various mental and physical effects, which include euphoria and altered states of mind. For many, Merkhana is provides an escape from everyday realities, and the only place where their hopes, and dreams can actually exist.

Khat, for most unemployed youth, has become a way to overcome the sense of hopelessness, a way to tune out reality. They are all searching for a seemingly elusive sense of agency, as well as living with the contradictions of loving a land that makes it difficult for them to live in peace.

In the last decade, the crops that Ethiopia primarily exported — teff, sorghum, and coffee — have been replaced by the leafy green. With social significance, it has sustained so many who have worked in the fields for generations. However familiar the work is, some young people who have grown up in its shadow want more for themselves — life away from the fields; life without khat; life entirely elsewhere. They consider leaving home and all they have ever known for something new, far away, and, while perhaps more economically beneficial, lonelier and more isolating.

Shot entirely in stunning black and white, “Faya Dayi” opens with a long shot of a somewhat amorphous, barren landscape, nighttime, dark, crickets providing the only soundtrack, and in the distance a lone figure running playfully, starts to come into view. We see that it’s a child, as he or she runs past the camera. Cut to bewitching shots of elders indoors, some faceless, some not, chanting, giving thanks to God, separating khat leaves from their stems, and, in some cases, pounding them, as incense burns in a pot, the smoke it emits, thick and intense.

And then a lengthy shot of an open doorway, on the other side, an ambiguous view — smoky, cavernous, vast, dark depths — a haunting score providing an exclamation mark. It’s interrupted by a meek female voiceover, almost like that of a child, beginning a story about the Harari legend of a man named Azuekherlaini, who was tasked by God to find the Maoul Hayat (water of eternal life). The fable stretches the length of the film, as the voiceover interrupts intermittently to continue where she previously ended.

But that’s just the dressing on this striking, if enigmatic, transgenerational journey into the highlands of Harar, immersed in the rituals of khat, weaving a tapestry of hallucinatory stories that offer a window into the dreams of youth.

Unfolding more like a hybrid scripted narrative and documentary, the central story of “Faya Dayi” doesn’t follow a straight line, as it occasionally checks in on Mohammed, a 14-year-old, and the film’s presumed primary character, who works as an errand boy for the khat users in Harar. He lives with his father who, like so many in town, chews khat daily and often fights with Mohammed due to the mood swings caused by his addiction. Mohammed becomes anxious for a better life, but to have it, he must make a treacherous journey across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

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Related:

Ethiopia: Director Jessica Beshir’s ‘Hairat’ Selected for Sundance Film Festival 2017

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