Khat, a flowering plant native to Ethiopia, contains the stimulant cathinone. This chemical is released when the leaves are chewed, with resulting effects including euphoria and loss of appetite. The World Health Organization classifies it as a drug of abuse, but chewing khat is a custom reaching back hundreds or thousands of years in many countries, and it’s used in Sufism as an aid to prayer. Khat also Ethiopia’s most important cash crop.
Jessica Beshir’s feature documentary Faya Dayi, shot by Bashir in black and white in and around the rural Ethiopian town of Harar, offers an immersive, poetic meditation on khat. It combines many shots of people harvesting, processing, transporting, and consuming the plant (the film’s title comes from a chant sung while harvesting it) with poems, prayers and abstract imagery evoking the transcendent state known as Merkhana sought by those who chew it. A Harari legend, about a man named Azuekherlaini who searched for the water of eternal life (Maoul Hayat), is related in short segments throughout the film.
There’s not a lot of story in Faya Dayi, which is more interested in putting the viewer into an environment than in delivering a scripted narrative, but a few people show up before the camera again and again. The most memorable is 14-year-old Mohammed, who runs errands for the khat users and is either ignored or abused by his father, who has given himself over to khat addiction. As the film points out, for many people, including unemployed men and boys, khat offers the cheapest escape available, killing their hunger pains while letting them forget about their grim existence for a while.
Mohammed has another reason to wish to leave Harar—he wants to rejoin his mother, who left Ethiopia to seek work and to get away from the decades-long violent conflict between the Ethiopian government and Oromo separatists (and perhaps to escape an abusive husband as well). He thinks about her often, speaking his thoughts as if her were writing a letter to her, but reaching her in reality would require a perilous journey that he’s not sure he’s ready to undertake.
Above all, Faya Dayi is a stunningly beautiful film, directed with such assurance that it’s hard to believe it’s Beshir’s first feature. I bet it would look great on the big screen, but it does very well on the TV as well, and watching at home has the added benefit that one can more easily relax into its slow, meandering pace (assisted, if one so chooses, by the transcendant adult substance of one’s choice).
Faya Dayi has been scooping up awards on the Festival Circuit, including, at Full Frame, the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award, the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award. Other honors include the Audience Award at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize at the 2021 Nyon Visions du Réel, and nominations for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and the Documentary Competition Award at the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh
Faya Dayi is available available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.