Faya Dayi

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Faya Dayi
"Beshir keeps an eye on the natural environment as well as the sociopolitics, including the oppression of the Oromo people, while allowing a mythic element concerning the hunt for the water of life to flow alongside." | Photo: Jessica Beshir

“To be a migrant in a foreign land… is that luck?”

It’s a good question asked towards the start of this immersive and exquisitely shot black and white documentary from Jessica Beshir, which leaves talking head formulas far behind to sweep us up in a meditation on Ethiopia and the hopes and fears of its younger generation, stitched through with the story and industry surrounding stimulant leaf khat.

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“We shouldn’t have to perish in the deserts and seas to change our lives,” says one man. These sorts of observations spin through Faya Dayi in the way that smoke occasionally twists across the screen, while we see the work that goes into preparing khat for the market. Through the course of the film – which bathes us in the country’s reality rather than spoon-feeding facts and figures – we’ll see the plant, which looks a little like tea or bay leaf, being harvested and bushelled in enormous warehouse, workers often singing and chewing it as they go. The name of the film, Faya Dayi, itself, references one of the songs sung at harvest.

“Everyone chews to get away.” And there it is, not just the khat leaf as a job of work or as a religious symbol – and Beshir dips us in and out of the way that it has long had a cultural function in ritual too – but as a point of escape, something we gather is much on the minds of the young. Those who don’t chew seem to soon pick up the habit, the flicking of the leaves mirroring the sort of moments of contemplation of someone making a roll-up cigarette. Its effects are described as being akin to coffee or a very weak type of speed, but like any stimulant, there is an addictive element, even if it’s only at a psychological level. “I never know which person to expect,” one young man says, when talking about his father’s habit and the impact on him, “He’s losing it with khat”.

Although the focus is on younger men, women are a presence here too, although physically seen less, many also chewing khat. One young man says he only gave up on the idea of migration because of his mother, while a woman talks about losing her husband to Merkhana – the name for the high achieved with khat – in the way she would if he had left with another woman. “Only fabric caresses my body,” she says.

It’s not just the men who leave either, one youngster, who the film returns to repeatedly, talks about the loss of his mum to migration from which she has never returned. Beshir, who was previously at Sundance with her equally meditative short Hairat, keeps an eye on the natural environment as well as the sociopolitics, including the oppression of the Oromo people, while allowing a mythic element concerning the hunt for the water of life to flow alongside. Rather than jostling for attention, these disparate layers come together, whispering through one another like wind through net curtains, achieving a hypnotic and melancholic rhythm that casts a lasting spell.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2021
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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. A tapestry of intimate stories offers a window into the dreams of youth under a repressive regime.

Director: Jessica Beshir

Writer: Jessica Beshir

Year: 2021

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Ethiopia, US


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