“I Wanted Viewers to Meet People Before They Become News Stories”: Jessica Beshir on Faya Dayi
Filmed in the highlands of Harar, Ethiopia, Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi is a deeply personal project for the Mexican-Ethopian director. Having left her home city of Harar in tenth grade, the now-Brooklyn-based Beshir travelled back and forth between America and Ethiopia for a decade to spend time with family and gather material for the film, which now competes in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary section. The film provides an contemplative portrait of Harar and the people that live in and around it, using its focus on the harvest and trade of the “khat” plant—a chewable stimulant that has become the country’s most lucrative cash crop—as a means to structure a sprawling cross-societal survey of the drug’s wide-reaching applications and impacts.
Shot in atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white and cut rhythmically to a soundtrack of designed ambient sound and lilting drone music, the film cycles through its scenarios languidly, lulling the viewer under its spell, transmitting the sensations of the city and the surrounding farmlands, whilst sharing stories that speak to contemporary experience and the country’s disharmony and strife, but also to the more mythical undercurrents underlying the spiritual Sufi Muslim histories of the crop. Focusing mostly on the Oromo people, many of whom who work as khat farmers, Faya Dayi looks to give voice to an group of people that face considerable persecution despite being Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, showing the situations which have forced many young people to flee the country. Beshir tells us about the conditions that led to the creation of the film, how she cultivated its aesthetic qualities and its distinctive mood, and what she hopes viewers might take away from the experience of spending some slow and deep time in Harar.
Filmmaker: How did you get started on this film? What is your relationship with Ethiopia, and how often are you there?
Beshir: My father is Ethiopian and my mother is Mexican. I was raised in Ethiopia, in Harar, the place that the film is set. I fled Ethiopia when I was young because of political upheaval during the reign of Mengistu and the Derg regime. When I left, that uprooting was brutal for me.
It’s not like I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was little. I was going to become a doctor, as my father was. I grew up within war and conflict, but when I came to Mexico, where there was no war and it was a mono-cultural space, I felt that this was not a place in need of a doctor. At some point, I decided that I would love to study film and ended up in a critical studies program at UCLA. When it came to making anything, the only things I could think about were related to Ethiopia. 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. That’s why even though I was based in Brooklyn, I started making every single effort I could to go back to Ethiopia as much as I could.
I started filming this feature in 2011. When I first went back, I went with my camera but didn’t know I was going to make this film. I just wanted to reconnect with a place that I had missed so, so much. I made my short film Hairat (2017) during these visits, but it took me a long time for me to start understanding that I was actually working towards making a longer piece.
Filmmaker: Could you tell me a little about the significance of the khat crop, in terms of its economic, cultural and spiritual roles within Ethiopian society?
Beshir: This feature happened because I started to understand the present day political repercussions of what was going on in the country. One of the things I realised during the long drive to Harar—which takes 12-13 hours, depending on who’s driving, from the the airport in Addis—is that I used to remember seeing all these colors from the various vegetation along the route: sorghum, coffees, and other crops. But, over time, I started to to realise that all of those colours had gone, replaced by this green blanket of a single crop, khat. I started to realise that life in Ethiopia literally evolved around khat, not just because people are chewing, but basically it was basically the only industry creating jobs. If you were employed in Ethiopia, you were probably involved in the khat trade.
Filmmaker: Is that a new development, the dominance of the crop?
Beshir: Khat has existed forever. It’s the ancient national medicinal plant. It has always been used for religious meditations, especially by Sufi Muslims. It has always been part of the culture, but when I returned, it had become something altogether different. Everything revolved around khat.
There has been so much unemployment within the past 30 years, as a result of the actions of the very repressive TPLF regime. A lot of the youth, even those graduating from Masters programs, had nothing to do. Khat become a form of rebellion. People would get together and chew to socialise, and often to talk about the country’s political state. With no freedom of speech, you need these safe spaces to be able to talk freely, and khat creates a sacred space. It is also the ultimate equaliser, because in a khat circle, a chauffeur could find themselves sitting next to a minister. So I started to see that there was so much going on with khat, especially with the Oromo farmers of this region.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide to show a sprawling selection of stories, rather than focus more intensely on one individual or family who were closely involved with the crop?
Beshir: Ethiopia is made of over 80 ethnic groups, each with their own languages, cultures, and traditions. It’s counterproductive to ever have a single narrative about a country that encompasses so much, so I made a specific decision to have this wide focus as a way to contribute to the narrative of the country, because there are so many voices that are not necessarily represented at all.
Khat affects everyone differently in the society. First of all, I’m focusing on the rural Oromo society, a community of farmers who grow and use it, then those in the labyrinthian city of Harar who consume it too. As people say, some chew to remember and some to to forget; some chew to study, some to to work. I wanted to also ask, what does khat represent for young children too? How do they experience it at that very formative stage of their lives, and at this national political moment? I wanted to delve into all of these different components, because it’s very hard to to speak about khat’s role within society by focusing on just one aspect.
Filmmaker: Why are you so attracted to black and white? Can you talk through your choice of cinematographic style, and who or what influenced you as an image-maker?
Beshir: What you see in Harar is inherently visually incredible. But beyond that, what always moved me about the place was what was happening underneath, this sense of spirituality. The Sufis seen in the film, they are poets. Every single thing that they say always sounds like poetry to me. When I shot Hairat, I was thinking about black and white as showing the borders between love and fear; the love that this man feels for the hyenas, the fear that comes when dealing with these wild animals. This idea of the junctures between things has always been conceptual thing for me, expressed through the shadows that black and white provides. That informed my preference for black and white in the feature too, because I wanted to focus more into the inner world, the inner expressions of this space.
Filmmaker: It removes some of the distractions as well for the viewer? It focuses them.
Beshir: Yeah, exactly.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of contexts that lie peripherally to the central atmospheric experience then. Related to that, what sort of experience do you hope a viewer would have with the film?
Beshir: I want someone to see this film and feel what it is like to be there. I want to invite people to feel the way we experience time, and the mood with which people navigate life in Harar. The poetry and beauty of the languages heard in this film are not necessarily very well known, so for me, for those languages to be heard at a platform like Sundance is amazing. I want viewers to be able to experience the inner beauty these people are possessed with, all of the concepts and thoughts that come from them and are not always heard. I also wanted to bring other voices to the forefront than the viewer may have encountered in other Ethiopian films that they may have seen.
It was also important, to me, to bear witness to the voices of the youth and show the predicament they are facing with the repressions that exist today, and the difficult choices that they are being forced to make. As you will know, many young people are being forced to make treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, but I wanted people to see where that starts. We see a lot in the news but we become desensitised to it, so I wanted viewers to meet people before they become news stories.