Faya Dayi is the best kind of documentary, one that eschews prefab forms and instead finds mesmerizing beauty in the quotidian.
Programmed as part of Sundance’s World Documentary program, Jessica Beshir’s beguiling Faya Dayi plays less like a traditional non-fiction film than a poetic koan to a part of the world most Westerners know little (or nothing) about. Set amongst the population of Sufi Muslims in the city of Harar in Ethiopia, Faya Dayi uses the khat leaf — a chewable stimulant originally used for religious mediation which has now become Ethiopia’s number one cash crop — as an organizing principle that structures numerous personal testimonials of life in the region. There are no talking head interviews here, nor title cards relaying pertinent information, just a kind of freeform, almost abstract, portraiture. Acting as her own cinematographer, Beshir shoots in smoky black and white, emphasizing closeups of hands and textures and patterns. There are long scenes of people simply at work, first harvesting khat plants from fields, then stripping leaves from stalks, sorting them, then bundling and weighing, and finally taking the produce to markets where it’s sold. All the while there’s a steady stream of voiceover narration that overlaps and flows between speakers as Beshir flits from subject to subject. There are young men planning to immigrate across the sea and who are in the midst of arranging their travels; a woman who recounts a long-lost love; a boy who describes the violent mood swings of his khat addicted father; farmers who explain how their families grew coffee beans for generations before turning to growing khat. There’s a regular undercurrent highlighting the ongoing plight of the Oromo people, who have been targeted and oppressed for decades.
Much of this contextual information, though, exists only in the margins of the film, to be gleaned indirectly; Beshir is more interested in creating and sustaining an overwhelming mood of existential ennui. The film has a meditative quality to its storytelling, scenes melding into each other via intuitive connections and associative editing. There’s a sense of trying to capture an entire world, a way of life that is both beautiful and cruel. There’s pride here, certainly, as one man entreats the young men to stay in their homeland, as they’ll never really belong to another country. But there’s pain, too. Faya Dayi is the best kind of documentary, one that eschews standard, prefabricated forms and instead finds the mesmerizing beauty in the quotidian.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.