The chewing of khat leaves in Ethiopia is a tradition dating back centuries and is often used by Sufi Muslims as part of their religious experience. In Faya Dayi, which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Mexican-Ethiopian director, producer and cinematographer Jessica Beshir finds vivid inspiration in the practice.
The term ‘soporific’ is, one would imagine, not how most directors would like their films to be described. But that is exactly the experience of watch Beshir’s debut feature documentary, in the sense that it induces an almost trance-like state in the viewer. Watching Faya Dayi is like having a directed dream, drifting from image to image, sound to sound, floating down a stream of sensation.
The aural soundscape is as responsible as the luminous black and white photography for this experience, combining the sounds of nature and spoken poetry which together direct the flow of a river of images. As a purely aesthetic experience, Faya Dayi is transcendent. There are, of course, cultural and historical specificities that will be lost on some and crystal clear for others, but the experience, I think, goes beyond pedestrian interpretations of the same imagery; multiple viewings are likely to produce very different experiences.
Faya Dayi is not a narrative film but it is filled with stories; brothers who dream of escaping the khat fields, a child whose father becomes abusive after chewing the leaves in the morning. Images like a boy floating in water or women picking khat leaves, ritualistically flicking at the stems, tell their own stories through sheer feeling. Other moments are logically inscrutable but have a resonance that defies explanation. There is a darkness, too, to Beshir’s film; khat dominates the Ethiopian economy, while the substance itself can be addictive and its use destructive. This ambivalence, too, directs the flow of the film, like so many eddies and snags in the river.
Beshir defies formal categorisation with a documentary that merges the external world with internal experience. Her film is at once about a cultural practice and a lucrative industry, but it is also about stories and storytelling, mystical experience and memory, concepts not easily communicated in conventional documentary form. If not in the right frame of mind, Faya Dayi is difficult to get a handle on. But that, perhaps, is the trick. Instead of trying to pin the film down and understand it logically, surrendering to its poetry and rhythms reveals something altogether more meaningful.