Nigeria has petrol. Ghana has gold. Ethiopia has coffee – and khat.
For those not in the know, khat is a stimulant green leaf discovered by Sufi Imams in their quest for eternity. It has since become Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop, favored by people seeking an escape via the high that khat promises.
Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi is a spiritual and poetic reflection of Ethiopia’s obsession with khat. Shot entirely in gorgeous black and white with images and lengthy stills that pay no mind to narrative coherence, Faya Dayi traces the value chain that manufactures khat and its by-products, subsuming this into the lives of the ordinary people involved. The people are intertwined with the plant and the place and so Beshir’s film is a complex tapestry that not only speaks of a longing but tells of a country in crisis.
Beshir, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker born in Mexico City and raised in Harar, Ethiopia, makes several pilgrimages back to the country she identifies with the most. Faya Dayi is a hallucinatory trip through time, space and memory that is like nothing else screened at Sundance this year.
Competing in the World Cinema Documentary section, Beshir’s Faya Dayi defies categorization in the way that it blends fiction with fact, moves between forms, and honors several voices at the same time. Perhaps it would be tidy to describe Faya Dayi as a film mapping contemporary Ethiopia through the people and their preoccupations. Although this description would be inadequate, as Beshir purposefully muddies the waters, adopting a free-form style that is as opaque as it is subjective.
One of these strands follows Mohammed, a 14-year-old working as an errand boy for khat patrons in Harar in exchange for the irregular tip. Mohammed lives with his father who, like most of the town is addicted to the plant and captive to the mood swings that follow. This addiction has strained the relationship between father and son. Faced with the hopelessness of the country’s financial situation, Mohammed is considering a perilous journey to Europe that will first take him across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed isn’t the only person concerned with migrating. Everyday as the situation at home worsens, droves of young people move to the West in search of better lives. Beshir reflects on this great migration through personal vignettes and stories that may or may not relate to the image playing out at any given time. For these people, the embrace of khat is only natural, therapeutic even, as it provides a welcome escape from their harsh realities, inducing alternate states of mind that range from light headedness to euphoria. Some of the nameless characters include a romantic couple looking to share their reunion, and a kid taking on breadwinner responsibilities by working as a laborer on a khat field.
Faya Dayi’s interweaving of scripted narrative and nonfiction makes for a most involving visual experience, one that mimics the mood-altering states of khat and will likely leave audiences levitating. To see the film is to surrender to its pull.
Editor's Note: FAYA DAYI most recently received the Grand Jury Prize (sponsored by Mobilière) and the FIPRESCI Award at the 2021 Visions du Réel International Film Festival