Faya Dayi film review: a mesmerising portrait of a country

·2-min read

Written and directed by Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi blurs the lines between documentary and fiction to take us on a journey through Ethiopia, through the lens of the country’s khat trade. Khat is a native leaf which, when chewed, induces euphoric highs, and in recent years has become Ethiopia’s largest export.

Beshir was born in Ethiopia but left as a teenager due to political turmoil. Faya Dayi is the product of her return to her homeland, and of her realisation of the breadth of khat’s impact on the country.

Her film focuses on the everyday lives of the Oromo people in the city of Harar - a place at the heart of khat trading. The non-linear storyline bounces between shots of the local landscapes and culture, and mini-narratives based on Harar’s people, such as a group of khat farmers who talk frankly to Beshir about their farming of the leaf, but also about how they have been negatively affected by the same repressive regime that drove the filmmaker out of the country in her adolescence. The principal story, however, is that of 14 year-old Mohammed Arif, tired of having to deal with the mood swings and unpleasant and erratic behaviour induced by his father’s khat addiction. He dreams of his own escape.

Aside from this loose central narrative, much of the film is comprised of long, poetic shots accompanied by a screenplay formed of lyrical sentences and verses. Shot in an entrancing black and white, the visuals are unarguably awe-inspiring - this is a clear love letter to Beshir’s native land and its rich culture.

A still from Faya Dayi (handout)
A still from Faya Dayi (handout)

Unfortunately, there are areas in which the film falls short. At times, the non-linear composition becomes slightly too abstract - there are points where it just feels like a series of visually pleasing shots stitched together with no driving narrative, making it difficult to follow and, honestly, too long. There are several absolutely beautiful still shots of, say, net curtains blowing wistfully, or the eeriness of an empty classroom - these are stunning, but often the camera lingers here for much longer than it should, dragging the film out for an unaccountable two hours.

Faya Dayi is a tender and visually stunning look at a side of Ethiopia seldom seen by those who don’t reside there. The film comprehensively tackles the subject of khat from all perspectives: agricultural, economic and the complex effects of its addictive qualities on users and their families. Although the pacing can sometimes be too slow, this is a melancholic, mesmerising story of a country.

Faya Dayi was at the BFI London Film Festival 2021. fayadayi.com

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