Merve Ünsal Genç (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Faya Dayi is a film of yearning, often missing or asynchronously revealing the objects of that yearning. Set in Harar, Ethiopia, the film’s overarching protagonist is the khat plant, a stimulant leaf, shown at various stages of harvest and through its aftereffects on those who chew it. Director Jessica Beshir forgoes creating a linear narrative out of what she has observed. Instead, she presents stories of multiple characters, zooming in and out of situations and contexts with a meandering yet compassionate and keen gaze that is obviously based in a long-term engagement with her subjects. Extradiegetic narrators frequently speak from outside of the frame, their words formally interwoven with the poignant and idiosyncratic camerawork. The oozing of the khat plant is reflected visually in the flow of images as places, people, situations, and motions blur together.
The disconnect between the innocuous-looking plant and the dream state it produces is further deepened by the images evoked by the people talking about their experiences with khat. While khat serves to connect first-person narratives of economic difficulties, unemployment, estranged intimacies, and aspirations, the mythological narrative that begins the film places it partly in an imaginary realm, decisively linking the Sufi tradition of chewing khat to meditate with the quotidian use of the plant. Khat is situated as a window – both for us as viewers, through which we can glimpse life in Harar, and for the characters, whose search for an elsewhere is instigated by this plant.
The film often focuses on gestures, in particular of hands, producing an intimate portrait of the materiality of the khat while subtly indicating how it shapes human agency and experience. Khat is present as a form of meditation, an escape from the harsh realities of the film subjects’ social and economic circumstances, and an object of labor practices. Despite its hyperfocus on gestures, the film aptly critiques the contexts that encourage the consumption of khat. What could have felt like a halting narrative succeeds in telling a larger story of vulnerabilities and fallibilities: social, political, and personal. The khat is not stigmatized but is rather portrayed to be as mortal as the hands that reach out to it or sift through it.
The attention paid to gestures also serves to point to time as a construct, diluted and complicated by repetitions. Time overshadows the whole film: time missed, time stopped, time lost. Sometimes, time appears to slow down. When the khat is being sorted, the repeated hand gestures are shown such that the hands take on a monumental significance, stretching the time of this seemingly simple gesture. When the camera is behind Mohammed as he is walking through the city, positioned slightly lower than his head, the slow tracking shot becomes an exercise in extended observation. This camera angle is also used to depict two women walking on a rural road, the sound of their footsteps on the ground magnified along with that of the wind’s movement through their burqas. This sequence emphasizes the elasticity of the experience of time, how it may slow and expand. In contrast, during a scene wherein laborers carry the khat in bundles while singing, the brisk passage of time is underscored. Although the temporality of the film is often languid, the sequences showing the nighttime harvesting of the khat plant tighten the temporality of the film. The need to get the harvested khat to the markets before the chemical effect is lost is a race against time. Yet, Beshir combines shots focused on the repetitive acts around harvesting and selling the khat with shots that embody rather than narrate the internal experiences that occur before, during, and after people chew khat. These rapid shifts in temporality contribute to the opacity and inconclusiveness that characterize the film as a whole. The film dwells within the attempt to narrate something that cannot be narrated, all the while aware of the desire to relay. In other words, Faya Dayi does not deny or reject narrative; rather, it acknowledges the futility of narration in this context.
Throughout the film, there are numerous references to migration: people who have left Ethiopia, people who have come back, and people who are thinking about going. The link between migration and khat is conveyed through intermittent references to the escape that the plant provides. At the same time, khat is linked to remembrance. A line spoken in the film “Whoever eats khat will remember you” positions the plant as the transmitter of memory and knowledge. The why of khat is never directly addressed. Instead, the formal tension between motion and that which remains stationary, reflects an in-between state of daily life and of consciousness in which time pulsates rather than flows. Using khat as a vessel to connect internal and external experience, Beshir’s film points to this pulsation even as so much else remains concealed.
“Escaping into the Cinematic”
S. Topiary Landberg (University of California, Santa Cruz)
The opening sequence of Faya Dayi (Jessica Bashir, 2021) announces this film’s arresting slipperiness. Over the course of its first minute, a rural Ethiopian landscape emerges slowly from the dark, revealing a wide, open plain. In the distance a moving figure is running and sliding in the mud. As his body slowly advances, arms outstretched, viewers might wonder whether this boy is dancing or just slipping as he runs. But, before we can discern the answer, the film cuts to a small fire in a smoky interior over which a raspy female voice whispers to us that once upon a time an amir (prince), fearing he would be forgotten after death, was given the gift of khat by God and assured that whoever eats this special leaf will always remember him. With this mysterious, lyrical opening, Faya Dayi introduces its subject—the ubiquitous hold that the khat plant has on the people of this region.
As a visually striking, even picturesque vision of this remote part of the world, Faya Dayi seems to walk a tightrope between presenting an exquisitely romantic vision of this place and its people and a sanguine view of the difficulties of life shaped by khat— an addictive drug and economic mainstay of life in the ancient city of Harar and the surrounding highlands of Eastern Ethiopia. As a cinematic experience, Faya Dayi unfolds with a lugubrious, dreamy pacing, making the film feel like a narrative in search of a story. Scenes and settings swirl and dissipate like the enveloping smoke that is a recurring visual motif. Slowly, a few characters emerge—two boys, one younger and one older, provide an obliquely critical view of life in this haunted world. But in following them, what eventually becomes clear is that, rather than a providing an in-depth story about these boys, Faya Dayi’s main character is the khat plant itself—a plant long traditionally used by Sufi Muslims as a spiritual aid. The boys are often pictured silently, performing various daily tasks, squinting into the sun, lying down, or looking intently off into the void—their figures narrated by voice-overs suggesting their inner thoughts. It is through these voice-overs that the images illustrate, rather than synchronize, with the voices, and inform us about life in Harar. The voice-overs come to us as snippets of conversation, lending the impression that we are overhearing things, picking up on partial bits about the difficulties of life in this ancient coffee growing region, where, due to lack of rain, coffee has been replaced by khat. We hear something about political upheaval, a brother or father imprisoned, allusions to familial abuse or spousal abandonment. But what we see are boys floating through a world in which any sense of a future seems to have emigrated. These boys dream of following those who have already left, and we hear them plotting how to travel to Europe through Egypt. Meanwhile, the film itself seems to want to collude with the older men who implore the boys to appreciate the beauty of their homeland and the benefits of remaining in their own country.
As the camera follows the boys, we encounter others—a veiled woman with light eyes who complains about her missing husband, an older man who chews khat while reading from an old religious book, and groups of adults who work in the khat fields and the khat market. The camera lingers on details—close-ups of hands flicking khat leaves before plucking them to chew. We see the khat harvest in the field, and then the preparation of the large bundles to be loaded onto trucks and sold in various markets. Over the course of this wandering, we come to sense how the growing, harvesting, and consumption of khat pervades all aspects of daily life. Yet, the film returns again and again to the ways that dreams and other forms of escape intercede in this world. Through this emphasis, the film makes a clear connection between the desire to get high and the desire to leave home and chase far away dreams. At one point, a young male voice over tells us: “Everyone chews to get away. Their flesh is here but their soul is gone.” For viewers who are familiar with the stories of suffering endured by so many African and Syrian migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, the stakes of leaving home for these boys are clear.
Above all, Faya Dayi provides an alluringly cinematic experience of a rural world far removed from most trappings of contemporary technological urban globalism. The film’s gorgeous black and white compositions unfold like a series of photographs come to life, intent on capturing the lonely emptiness that khat visits upon the people, like a hazy gauze that sprays a mist of suffering in its diaphanous wake. And, while the film is marketed as a documentary—Jessica Bashir, a Brooklyn-based, Mexican-Ethopian filmmaker was a Sundance documentary fellow—the film seems more like a surrealist, cinematic poem akin to the work of Ousmane Sembéne or Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. The everyday world captured in the film is expertly composed and edited, and the film privileges the sensory and poetic over any kind of rhetoric or verité realism. Yet, while Faya Dayi never stoops to didacticism, its critical point of view about khat’s pervasive impact on life is without question. If there is a sense of conflict at the heart of the film, it is that a film suffused with such visual beauty should ultimately be used to describe the site of such desperation for escape. And, just as the khat chewers seek to escape the pain of their everyday lives through eating the khat leaves, the final scene in which one of the boys is shown trying to hitch a ride out of town is an ending that feels inevitable both in terms of the film’s narrative structure and as a reality created by impact of khat.
One of the most interesting—and perhaps also troubling – aspects of the film is how Faya Dayi’s lush aestheticism implicates its audience by replicating the experience of intoxication as viewing condition. In this way, Faya Dayi creates a parallel between the escapist power of cinema and of eating khat. The slow, dreaminess of the film creates an audiovisual analogy to the type of hallucinatory escapism that the khat leaf offers to its users. Yet, as viewers, we are not allowed to remain oblivious to the desperation and entrapment that the khat creates—even as we are lulled by the chanting of its harvesters and seduced by the silhouettes and winding alleys and veiled figures who lead us into their private chambers and thoughts and fears. As the smoke wafts through the frames, fingers plucking and flicking leaves from a carefully chosen branch, we viewers must reckon with the seduction of our own escape into this cinematic dreamscape.