Directed by Jessica Beshir
Review by Andrew Bay
With a cast mostly with no prior acting experience, Faya Dayi, the debut film by the Ethiopian-American director, Jessica Beshir (shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2021), depicts the age-old tradition of khat chewing. Khat is a mild, tobacco-like plant and stimulant which is used across Eastern Africa and Ethiopia, and dates back one thousand years. The state of euphoria or bliss that it produces (known as ‘merkana’) is sought especially by young people in Ethiopia to escape the harshness of their daily reality. The film bravely explores the connection between the state of disembodied yet collective consciousness that khat produces, alongside the economic hardship which plagues the country.
Traditionally, the plant was used in all night spiritual ceremonies to invoke and conjure the power of ancestral spirits. Nowadays, it is mainly used by seasonal workers in round-the-clock field picking sessions which constitute the main source of employment for the underclass, young and old alike. The cyclical nature of khat’s harvesting process is reflected in the film which follows the workers from the beginning of the picking season all the way through to the transport of plants to markets across the country. Beshir shows, with great tenderness and care, how the daily disappointment of a life without hope or the prospect of improvement, greatly affects the younger generation.
Most of the homeless, teenage orphans portrayed in the film can only find solace in sharing the experience of ingesting khat together. The director illuminates the subtle cultural evolution of the use of the plant, from its spiritual origins for the older generation, to its sense-numbing, mind-expanding role for today’s disaffected youth.
A beautifully peaceful lake, which the younger characters live alongside, reappears throughout the film as a motif. It is the expression of the dream of escaping their tragic circumstances which haunts the youth. Yet, to accomplish this goal only two very dangerous options are available to them: sailing across the Red Sea, or sailing across the Mediterranean Sea on pirate ships run by ruthless, money-grabbing sailors. Yet water symbolises the only meaningful prospect for the future which the youth can hang onto. The first and last scenes in Faya Dayi depict a young boy ethereally dancing in a pond at the break of dawn.
Throughout the film, characters seem to move in space and time in a state of levity and airiness. This effect is accentuated by the dialogue, almost exclusively superimposed over the images, so that it appears to be disassociated from the protagonists. It captures the feeling of disorientation collectively experienced by these young Ethiopians. These scenes also demonstrate how, at its core, the soul of the young boy dancing in the pond is permeated on a day-to-day basis by his aspiration for redemption and deliverance in spite of the great uncertainty in which he lives.
Faya Dayi is entirely shot in stunningly effective chiaroscuro black and white tones, reflecting the balance the director tries to strike between the fear and love, the hope and despair which khat chewing brings out of all the characters.
The memorable line in Faya Dayi – ‘After you chew the khat, it’s like a film in your mind and once you go in, you’ll never find your way out’ – perfectly captures the immersive experience of watching this beautifully directed film.