Khat is at the heart of Faya Dayi. This flowering shrub (scientific name Catha edulis) contains a stimulant that is released by chewing its leaves, resulting in a mildly euphoric, restless state, similar to the buzz conferred by a triple shot of espresso. Although not as familiar in the West as other psychoactive botanicals, khat is widely cultivated in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where its consumption is believed to go back thousands of years. In these regions, the plant has historical connections to the practice of Sufism and – much like tobacco and coffee – often serves as a foundation and lubricant for day-to-day socialization, especially among men. It can also create a powerful psychological dependency in those that chew it, and long-term usage can lead to a kind of depressive dissociation from reality.
Ethiopian Mexican filmmaker Jessica Beshir (“Hairat”, “Heroin”) grew up in the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, which is often said to be the birthplace of khat. While the plant has always been a crucial component of the area’s culture and economy, its dominance as a cash crop has intensified in recent years, such that Harar’s very livelihood now revolves around its cultivation, processing, and export. Everyone seems to be involved in the khat trade in one capacity or another – from the harvesters in the fields to the laborers in the warehouses, all the way down to the delivery boys who fetch bundles of leaves for glassy-eyed old addicts.
Beshir, who left Ethiopia as a teenager and only returned years later, could have made a straightforward, exposé-style documentary about the realities of this emergent drug-based monoculture and the striking changes it has wrought on the region. One can easily picture such a feature: the interviews with local workers and users; the infographics illustrating the global khat economy; the earnest narration by a Hollywood celebrity. Faya Dayi is not that film. The phrase “cinematic tone poem” is frequently thrown around by film critics, perhaps a little too freely, but it is the ideal descriptor for Beshir’s mesmerizing feature debut. This is not a film that is interested in conveying information, but in creating an immersive sensation, one that is reminiscent of a trance – whether from a psychoactive substance or from a mystical communion with the divine.
Working as both writer, director, and cinematographer, Beshir shot Faya Dayi in and around Harar over the course of several years. Her film’s gaze falls on a handful of recurring faces. The most prominent of these is Mohammed, an adolescent boy who has a conflicted relationship with his home, and with the plant that has come to define the contours of his young life. Beshir looks on as Mohammed works in the fields, runs errands, and explores a dilapidated cinema. His home life is volatile: His father is a listless khat addict who reacts explosively when his supply runs low. “I never know which person to expect,” Mohammed states with a tinge of exhausted despair in his voice. One older field laborer has recently returned from abroad, and Mohammed asks not-so-nonchalantly about the costs and logistics of making the fraught journey to Europe. He contemplates fleeing Harar in this fashion at one point, but also seems to resign himself to developing a khat habit of his own. His liminal status in the community – not quite a child, not quite a man – amplifies the sensation that he is pacing in sluggish circles, waiting for his life to begin.
The sequences focused on Mohammed are the most lucidly sketched portions of the film, but overall Faya Dayi isn’t all that concerned with story or even characters. The local people – most of them of the Oromo ethnicity – drift in and out of Beshir’s feature, each face and voice contributing to its texture. In many cases, the filmmaker presents only snippets of their lives, near-abstract sequences of light, sound, and motion: workings cutting and bundling khat at a breakneck pace; two men squishing mud between their toes for a wattle and daub wall; children splashing in the shallow water of a vanishing lake bed. A woman speaks forlornly about waiting for her beloved to divorce his wife. Another woman haggles with a shopkeeper over the price of bottled water and charcoal. An elderly khat addict licks a finger to turn a page in his dusty, well-thumbed copy of the Quran.
Beshir is working here in a poetic documentary mode comparable to that of Patricio Guzmán’s recent features (Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button, The Cordillera of Dreams) and other impressionistic non-fiction films such as Sweetgrass (2009) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018). The director offers little to no context for individual scenes or shots, preferring to let the material speak for itself. She and editors Jeanne Applegate and Dustin Waldman stitch together the film’s bounty of footage – much of it fascinating, some of it perplexing, all of it visually exquisite – in a manner that privileges sensation and rhythm over narrative clarity. The film is not completely segregated from real-world politics or conflicts: References to land rights and economic disparities rumble through the dialogue, and at one point Beshir trains her camera on a group of activists who were jailed and tortured during the 2014-16 Oromo protests. Yet the filmmaker treats these matters as threads in a larger cinematic tapestry. They are no more or less integral than the black sparrowhawks roosting on an eave, a curtain rustling in a highland breeze, or the lustrous glimmer of a bride’s wedding jewelry. Every detail seems to have the same mass and significance.
Faya Dayi enfolds the viewer in this corner of the world, bestowing an awareness of its distinct patterns, and hopefully an appreciation for how khat’s supremacy is changing those patterns. As enamored as Beshir is with the natural beauty, tangible history, and colorful inhabitants of Harar, her film cannot escape the leaf. She returns again and again to footage of people harvesting it, carrying it, weighing it, packing it, and, above all, chewing it. It is not a coincidence that this film often exhibits the sensory qualities of a euphoric high, as though it were attempting to echo the khat experience. Beshir’s camera is easily transfixed by the motion of wind-whipped cloth, the slow bubbling of stewing fruit, and the flare of oncoming headlights as a truck speeds down a nocturnal highway. It’s the rare film whose evocation of a psychoactive state derives not from its hallucinatory imagery, but from its overall sensation of dreamy dissociation. Beshir’s hypnotic, expressive approach to her material underscores that the allure of cinema is not all the different from that of the khat leaf: It is tempting to sit in a dark place and be liberated, for a time, from the burdens of the ponderous past and onrushing future.
Faya Dayi will screen nightly Oct. 15-17 at the Webster University Film Series.