Faya Dayi – Film Review
by Frank L
Director – Jessica Beshir
Writer – Jessica Beshir
Stars – Murano Mlbb, Kawa Sherif, Salih Sigirci
Although this is a documentary, it is an out-of-the-ordinary one. It seeks to convey the varied internal effects of chewing khat, a drug which creates a series of alterations to mood. The drug dominates Harar, an ancient city in Ethiopia of clay and wattles made. There is an engaging sequence when this process of building by the use of clay and wattles takes place. It brings to mind another dream-like sequence, namely that of Yeats in the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” when Yeats reminisces about “… a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:” This dream-like quality permeates the entire 120 minutes of this atmospheric documentary.
Harar for a variety of reasons, primarily political, has lost its economic variety and has become marginalised. Everything has been subsumed into the production and distribution of khat and the addictive need to chew it. It is the only activity in town. In order to get an inkling into what this societal dependence khat creates in the inhabitants, particularly the youth, there is an enlightening interview with Beshir by one Josh Siegel which is on YouTube. It helps to give you an understanding of the dream-like state that the omnipotence of khat has authored in this ancient city.
The film is slow-moving, as you would expect, and it lasts about two hours. It has a soundtrack that heightens the beautiful black and white images which are on display. The care with which the khat leaves are gathered, bundled, weighed and generally cosseted is portrayed with the eye of someone who understands the importance of this crop to this society. There is more than one language spoken and there are translations of most of them. In addition, there are songs which are also translated. The interview with Siegel explains how some of these choices came to be made (including by the exigencies of lack of time) and also explains some of the mythological stories told which add to the sense of intruding on a private world, an inner sanctum.
Beshir is originally from Harar but left as a child, describes herself as Mexican/ Ethiopian and this is her first feature film. It has deservedly won several awards on the International Film Festival circuit. It is a documentary about a city which has been reduced to the veneration of chewing khat. Out of this unlikely material, Beshir has devised a documentary which is not easy to grasp but is worth the effort to undertake the challenge. Allow yourself to enter into her dream-like tour of Harar, some of its inhabitants and the chewing of khat.