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Faya Dayi is, at its core, a study of liminal space: political turmoil trapping a region in a state of perpetual transition; the growth of khat transforming a national economy and its agricultural institutions; men chewing on its leaves so their minds journey as far away from reality as possible. The camera travels down darkly lit roads between the khat fields and a disembodied voice gently laments, “I want to leave this darkness, I want to run to a place where I can’t hear these thoughts. A quiet place where I can forget.”
This documentary has a dreamy lyricism, the black and white images captured in a gauzy haze, with many scenes taking place at night, lit only by fire and starlight. The subject is an Eastern Ethiopian community filled with disillusioned young men who work hard farming the khat and cope with their circumstances by chewing it, its psychoactive qualities softening the edges of the world around them.
Having grown up in the nearby ancient city of Harar, director Jessica Beshir’s connection to the region is evident; neither she nor her camera ever feels like an interloper. The movements are so gentle, and the edits so seamless, that the film glides through this world with preternatural elegance. The images she captures feel connected to the lightly hallucinatory effects of khat itself, which makes reality feel illusory. As one man intones, “Everyone chews to get away.”
The trauma they are escaping is only alluded to for the first hour of the film, until a group of men have a therapeutic moment, sharing their experiences of being attacked, tortured and imprisoned. The broader geopolitics are never explicitly stated but the struggle of the Oromo people within Ethiopia has a long and brutal history. As a result, Beshir presents the events as belonging to no particular time, with sequences slowed down or sped up to create a lightly surreal topography of time and space. The trance-like effect of watching the images mirror the subject’s mindset, where birds flying, fires burning, leaves lightly crackling in the wind have a transcendent quality, tied to some greater meaning to cling to.
Almost as surprising as the lack of documentary conventions is that this marks Beshir’s feature debut. The singular aesthetic and tone of her work are as striking as they are profound, with this film marking her out as one of the most exciting voices currently working in non-fiction filmmaking. Faya Dayi accomplishes something extraordinary, painting a complex picture or a region and its myriad problems with a level of careful artistry that would also befit a museum installation.
► Faya Dayi is in UK cinemas now, and will be available to stream on MUBI from 10 August.