A ceremony, a carefully folded garment and beaded token, a small group of men in worship waiting on some smushed up substance to finish cooking. We hear roomsound and the hypergray noise of clicking insects and a man’s voice: “We are exactly where God wants us to be.”
Not long after these words are declared in voiceover, spoken with a kind of spiritual excitement, Jessica Beshir’s camera affirms them. Two teens, one on the cusp of adulthood and the other just over the hill of childhood, talk about not wanting to be where they are. They’re on break, their eyes yearning for sleep, working in the Ethiopian highlands harvesting a small, nondescript leaf with tiny-spiny edges. Then again, they could also be a little stoned, seen cautiously chewing a few of the leaves, here and there—though not like the adults on their crew who dull their whole day with the leaf, this khat that now, they grumble to fellow workers, has replaced Ethiopia’s once thriving fields of delicious coffee.
The land has changed, because of climate, but more immediately because of khat. The older teen laments the trip he took that almost got him out of Ethiopia and away from wherever God wanted him to be, detailing to the younger teen how much it costs to get to Egypt, and then to Europe, as well as logistical considerations (food, clothing) and the realities of what traveling as a refugee would entail. The older teen returned home because of his mother; the younger teen quietly reveals—in voiceover, presented like an internal monologue—that his mother left to go “across the sea” when he was little. Now he dreams of getting far from his dad, who spends all day chewing khat, at least when he can afford it. When he can’t, he gets angry. The evenings are the worst. The teens doze, unhappy where they are but aware they have little choice. It’s argument enough that someone else, God and/or government, wants them there. Someone must want them there. Because they don’t.
An older worker on their crew tells the elder of the two teens that while he understands no one wants to pick and strip khat leaves for the rest of their lives (occasionally popping a leaf between your teeth as a small reward for all the drudgery), the only alternative—an almost sure death at sea via poorly planned escape to Egypt—is much worse. Their land, the highlands surrounding the ancient walled city of Harar, is the sweetest, most generous land in the world—“yet every regime has kept us from working our own fertile land.” Better to live with the indignity of a repressive government, chewing khat as their Sufi Muslim ancestors did under the auspices of a higher power, than suffer far away from home. “Better than becoming food for the fishes,” he concludes.
With editors Jeanne Applegate and Dustin Waldman, Beshir’s debut documentary feature is a lyrical representation of the Harari people of Ethiopia, focusing especially on the region’s young, who long to gain some semblance of freedom from their home. Though Faya Dayi is ostensibly about the industry surrounding khat, Ethiopia’s chief export, and the ways in which it suffuses and shapes daily and religious life, the film eschews historic context for the barest essentials needed to give us a few emotional throughlines. Mostly, we shift dream-like between quiet vignettes and more ambitious moments of symbolism and gorgeous abstraction—vultures and blackbirds, smoke and steam, non-diegetic sound and foley work, our many characters framed in ways to draw attention to the frame, not the content. Beshir films everything in carefully textured black and white, lending both breathless intimacy and a hushed awe to every image, be it mundane or broadly imagistic or whatever. The sumptuousness of the film, gently paced and occasionally overwhelmingly oneiric, mimics the sleepy effects of the khat chewed throughout. Soothing cinematography belies the systemic oppression, poverty, and death we sense at the core of the Harari experience. Composed in part by William Basinski—a musician a bit obsessed with sounding out physical decay and the deep ecological wounds of capitalism—cavernous dronescapes drape a semi-conscious sheen over urban wanderings and forest naps alike. All of it feels not quite real. “Everyone chews to get away.”
Mildly sedated, we’re carried swooning from person to person, from chores and meals to errands and jobs and visits and hang-outs. We watch the wall of a mud structure come together, literally, and elsewhere we sit with a man mourning a tragedy. People are often singing. Ever elsewhere, the camera slowly tilts up to reveal a truck that’s clearly tumbled from the winding mountainous roads over the edge. We know that one of the teens returned from his escape to Egypt to be with his mother after his father’s sudden death. Was his father driving a large load of khat bundles to the city along the treacherous roads, losing control in the dark where sharp turns come out of nowhere? We’re rarely afforded explanation or resolution. In the absence of a framework, we build our own.
Faya Dayi isn’t completely devoid of structure, though. Throughout the film, a young girl tells the tale of Azurkherlani, a pious amir who’s tasked with a quest to find the water of eternal youth for his people, only to turn ever inward, succumbing to fear and selfishness, eventually transforming into the khat plant. Likewise, Beshir follows a shipment of khat from the forests in the highlands of Harar, down the serpentine roads to the walled city and then into the markets and ports, processed and bagged and further processed and counted and bagged, back-breaking and monotonous labor accompanying the product all the way, transforming this culturally significant process into an over-commodified blight. Further, Beshir adopts the perspectives of the Harari youth—those that dream of escape, of freedom, of self-determination. A few politically active, college-aged kids solemnly describe activism as essential to who they are. They’ve recently lost someone in the protests; they’re traumatized by tear gas. Fighting is in their blood, in the Ethiopian soil. That’s why their coffee was so good, when they could still grow it.
Like RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Faya Dayi wanders lovely, liminal spaces between narrative and fairytale, between documentary film and something looser, something personally vérité. Like the films of Khalik Allah, Faya Dayi feels like a diary assembled from found sound and silent home movies, arranged into an ethnographic account of a specific, special place. But when it’s most aimless, Faya Dayi can be frustrating, exoticizing otherwise mundane happenings and dampening complex realities into gallery pieces. At the beginning of the film, a man who creaks with extremely old man energy says, “Look at the creator’s work. Humans can only see physical appearances, but can we tell what’s on the inside?” Faya Dayi attempts to answer, hoping to peer into the heads of the many people we follow. Unfortunately, Beshir often gets stuck admiring that physical appearance. We’re unable to go any deeper.
Director: Jessica Beshir
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.