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How letting go of time shaped ‘Faya Dayi’ and its look at Ethiopia’s imams and farmers

An Ethiopian from the Oromo people holds a plant in a black-and-white shot from the documentary “Faya Dayi.”
The documentary “Faya Dayi” explores the existential situations of Ethiopia’s Oromo people and the profound role played in their lives by the country’s dominant cash crop — khat — a plant that induces a dream-like state and permeates the culture.
(Janus Films)

Jessica Beshir’s visionary nonfiction work “Faya Dayi” may not be autobiographical, yet the lyrical and arresting black-and-white film is intricately linked to her own family’s history. Stories are wrapped around stories that explore the existential situations of Ethiopia’s Oromo people, and the profound role played in their lives by the country’s dominant cash crop — khat — a plant that induces a dreamlike state and permeates the culture.

The picture, released theatrically by Janus Films, won the grand jury prize at the Visions du Réel festival in Switzerland and landed coveted spots on the 2021 shortlists of the International Documentary Assn. and DOC NYC, the annual New York documentary festival.

Beshir was born in Mexico but grew up in Harar, a walled holy city in eastern Ethiopia whose oldest mosques date back more than a millennium. Her father, a physician, left with the family when she was 16 as the political turmoil had become too dangerous. “We lived the Cold War in Ethiopia,” she said, reflecting on the country’s history of violent regime change and civil warfare that has created a massive humanitarian crisis. “You’re busy reacquainting yourself with a new space, but it stays there with you.”

Now based in Brooklyn, Beshir began filming a decade ago, amid a series of visits back to Harar to spend time with her grandmother. At first, she would record messages to share with her father; over the years, a project began to formulate. “It was definitely a progressive sort of thing,” Beshir said. “I was teaching myself. All of a sudden, I became this gadget freak. How do you do this? Thank God we have YouTube.” She graduated from a VHS camera to a Canon 5D Mark II — once the go-to gear for no-budget filmmakers everywhere. “Limitations force you to really do what you can with what you have.”

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The narrative threads that Beshir evoke draw on experiences and observations, both with the khat farmers — with a focus on teenage boys yearning for something better — and the Sufi imams, members of the Harari ethnic group, who live in the walled city. A Sufi folk tale floats through the film like the smoke that curls in a dimly lighted doorway during an opening sequence, embellishing a hazily mythic aura that envelops the screen.

Two men in a field in an image from the documentary “Faya Dayi.”
An image from the documentary “Faya Dayi.”
(Janus Films)

Beshir was shaken by her first sight of the rural fields when she returned to the city as an adult. Economic factors and climate change had brought a dramatic shift.

“It was just all khat, all of a sudden,” she said. “There was no more coffee, there was no more sorghum or teff — which is the staple food, the grain. Starting from this visual landscape, I wanted to understand the sociopolitical landscape as well, and in doing so. that’s when I started to realize what the Oromo community was going through.”

The filmmaker had an entry point with the farmers because of her father, who she said had tended to their medical needs. “They trusted me because of that,” she said.

Making the movie, in a way, became an act of returning that trust. Beshir describes her approach in terms of call and response, taking inspiration for the distinct creative decisions that give the film its poetic and immersive qualities from her personal encounters.

“I’m talking with Sufi imams who have been doing this all their lives,” she said. They speak a lot about time, and what does time signify.” Beshir was given a clear message. “‘When you come here to film, you have to leave your notion of time, of New York, at the door. Because you are going to miss everything ...this walled city has a time of its own within which it operates. It’s almost like a vortex. You will realize many things when you are open to that, and not anticipate and not preconceive and truly be present because that is when you’re going to find everything.’ And that’s precisely what I did — ultimately. And the shape of the film comes from that.”

Beshir’s choice to shoot in black and white arose from her desire to map “the interiority of the people,” an ironic notion, she said, because Harar explodes with color. “These are Sufis and they’re talking about emptying yourself of all kinds of egos in order to be able to see,” she said, “so I wanted to strip it from color and just focus on the textures.”

The film’s artful use of photography, slow-motion, voice-over and an embedded perspective from within the world it’s observing aligns “Faya Dayi” with such notable exploratory nonfiction efforts as RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother.” Beshir expressed her admiration for a couple of master filmmakers, for showing how to create unique work.

“I love the films of Béla Tarr,” said Beshir, noting the Hungarian filmmaker best-known for his eight-hour epic “Sátántangó.” She also shared her affection for Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan. “I remember when he first made ‘Koza,’” the filmmaker’s 1995 debut short, “and him speaking of buying a camera and not doing anything for 10 years because he was afraid. But he went for it one day.”

That example resonated. “People do it on their own and it’s OK,” Beshir said. “It’s possible.”


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