This past weekend, Faya Dayi, the debut feature from Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir, won the top prize at Visions du Réel, the renowned documentary festival in Nyon, Switzerland, as well as an award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). An evocative portrait of Ethiopian society as it revolves around the production and consumption of its main cash crop, khat, a euphoria-inducing flowering plant, Faya Dayi will screen at New Directors/New Films (opening tomorrow and running through May 8), Hot Docs (Thursday through May 9), True/False (May 5 through 9), and Rotterdam (June 2 through 6).
When Janus Films picked up North American rights earlier this month, Criterion president Peter Becker noted in a statement that Beshir’s “commanding love letter to Ethiopia is both a meticulously observed exploration of the economic, social, and psychological impact of the khat trade on her country, and shot for shot, one of the most gorgeously cinematic films we’ve ever seen.” A few days later, MUBI took rights to distribute Faya Dayi in the UK and Ireland, Latin America, Italy, France, Germany, Turkey, and India.
Beshir was born to an Ethiopian father and a Mexican mother and grew up in Harar, an ancient city of labyrinthine walls set atop a hill in eastern Ethiopia. Political upheaval forced the family to flee when Beshir was in the tenth grade. Eventually, she studied film at UCLA before moving to Brooklyn, and in 2011, she started making return trips to Harar with her camera. One of the short films she shot there, Hairat (2017), is available on the Criterion Channel. “When it came to making anything, the only things I could think about were related to Ethiopia,” she told Matt Turner at Filmmaker when Faya Dayi premiered earlier this year at Sundance. “All of the images that came to me were emanating from that place of nostalgia for the country I was uprooted from. Childhood memories are one the strongest, most moving factors for me.”
All along the twelve-hour drive from the airport in Addis Ababa to Harar, Beshir used to see fields of varying colors as farmers grew crops ranging from sorghum to coffee. But over time, she observed the transformation of these fields into a “green blanket of a single crop, khat.” The plant, which sparks a buzz when chewed that some have compared to weed, has been used for centuries during religious ceremonies, particularly by Sufi Muslims. But over the past three decades or so, recreational use has become widespread in Ethiopia and beyond. “If you were employed in Ethiopia, you were probably involved in the khat trade,” Beshir tells Turner.
Faya Dayi tells several stories, and one of them centers on Mohammed, a fourteen-year-old coping with a father whose unpredictable mood swings are at the mercy of his addiction to khat. His mother left long ago for Saudi Arabia and never returned, and Mohammed, too, dreams of leaving. So do many of the farmers who harvest and chew khat. “Through the prism of the khat trade,” writes Tambay Obenson at IndieWire, Faya Dayi “weaves a tapestry of intimate stories of people caught between government repression, khat-induced reverie, and treacherous journeys across the Red Sea, and offers a window into the dreams of the youth who long for better lives elsewhere.”
In his review for Variety,Guy Lodge notes that “the languid rhythms of the filmmaking mirror the woozy impact of the drug, while a storytelling style that flickers casually between observational verité and esoteric myth-building suggests an in-and-out grasp on reality.” At Slant, Jake Cole observes that Beshir’s “high-contrast black-and-white cinematography oscillates between soft and hyper-sharp focus, while her use of slow motion and the film’s languid editing pace turn even the most mundane action into an ethereal, stretched-out moment in time. The opening sequence—a long shot of a silhouetted figure running toward the camera along a riverbank as the nighttime sounds of insects and other animals fill the soundtrack, then a close-up of smoke rising from a blazing brazier—set the poetic tone of Faya Dayi in a matter of seconds.”
Back in January, Filmmaker also interviewed Beshir’s two editors. Jeanne Applegate was drawn to “Jessica’s concept of the film as a prayer” and says that she and Beshir “connected over our appreciation for filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Khalik Allah.” Dustin Waldman notes that the team was “frequently referencing transportive and meditative filmmakers” such as Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, and Ra’Mell Ross. For Robert Daniels at RogerEbert.com, Beshir’s “assured debut is a spellbinding documentation of a self-destructive walking dream with few signs of an ending.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.