Relegated to the barren highlands of Harar by their government, the Oromo people of Ethiopia struggle with land divisions and ownership. Due to climate change, the rain no longer falls as it used to, and the longtime staple crop coffee is unable to grow to the previous standards required for selling. “The scent of coffee has changed,” as one farmer puts it. In its place, the lucrative khat grows freely in dry weather. The impacts of climate and an unfair regime on these farmers are just some of the subjects in Jessica Beshir’s documentary Faya Dayi. Beshir herself has deep connections to these issues; he grew up in Harar, but her family had to leave when she was a teenager due to political unrest. The film is her return home, a space to reconcile and reconfigure.
Khat, a potent stimulant, is chewed like tobacco, and it comes with its own social customs. Chewing khat has traditionally been a way to connect to God, the Earth, people, and everything in between. The film presents innumerable fingers working like machines to harvest leaves for sale, dancing across stems, tying bags, weighing, counting, filling trucks — trade, export, repeat. But what happens when work cannot be found? In search of opportunities, people risk their lives crossing waters and borders, separating themselves from their families and communities. Families are also torn apart by the abuse of khat. A young son of an addict makes an imaginary appeal to his missing mother for help with his father, calling to the air, to no response.
Similar indirect communicative methods conjure a haunted Harar. References to a Harari legend guide the film — the story of Azuekherlaini, who was tasked by God to find Maoul Hayat, the water of eternal life. Voiceovers are used to represent absent figures, sending laments to each other across shots of the highlands. That landscape’s ever-changing nature is made evident through images like a dried-up lake, contrasted with archival footage of a time when it was full. Water too becomes a memory.
Floating in the space between documentary and poetry, Beshir follows Tina Campt’s concept of still-moving-images, which “require the labor of feeling with or through them.” Two boys talk about their mothers and the possibilities of leaving Harar. The film literally slows down during the pauses in their conversation, allowing moments for the audience to locate and dislocate their breath. Some shots are so still that they could be mistaken for photographs. Emotional, mystical, and abstract, Faya Dayi grants viewers entry into the many rituals of khat. It’s a tribute to land kinship, as well as those who have lost it, and the youth who embark on risky voyages from the land in the hope of better lives.
Faya Dayi is playing as part of New Directors/New Films. Theatrical screenings at Film at Lincoln Center take place 5/7 and 5/10, and it will be available to stream via the FLC and MoMA virtual cinemas 5/8-5/13.