Faya Dayi is a film written and directed by Jessica Beshir, and the film has won both the Grand Prix in the Nyon Visions du Réel and the FIPRESCI Prize. She has also directed He Who Dances on Wood (2016) and Hairat (2017), with the latter tying into Faya Dayi.
The film takes place within the walled city of Harar in the eastern part of Ethiopia and the journey of many different characters within, especially their relationship with the leaf called khat – a leaf the Sufi Muslims have chewed and cultivated for centuries. It’s also Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop. In part of the film, we follow two young men: where one didn’t go through with his plan to leave the country to work to support his mother, and the other facing the harsh effects khat has on his father while contemplating leaving for good.
Throughout Faya Dayi, we see the Oromo people, who’ve been oppressed by various Ethiopian regimes over the centuries, who plant, harvest, and transport the khat crop in order to make their livelihood, even as it’s hallucinatory effects on the people using it negatively impacts their lives. There are many stories within the film that expose the political issues that the Oromo people face, personal relationships, parents and their children, and the teachings if the Sufi imams. Interspersed throughout the film is a voice-over of a tale about a Sufi man who searches for eternal life – a reference to the ‘merkhana’, the high that the khat leaf produces when chewed.
Check out the Q&A with the director below!
Moderator: How did you come to do this film in this style, and this subject matter?
Jessica Beshir: Well, thank you. Thanks for the question. You know, Hairat was a short film that we released in 2017. It opened at Sundance Film Festival. And basically, Hairat was actually part of every single thing that I’ve shot, you know, over the past 10 years and was part of this film. But Hairat came out on its own. It’s a small seven-minute film, but it came out because simply I needed to show people what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to go for. And, and yeah, so I had to release it as a short film, to even try to think, here I am trying to make a feature film, a feature documentary, but this is more of the style. This is what I’m trying to say, this is what I’m going for. So, it was sort of like a little bit of a sample, for me to introduce myself, to people, nobody had any idea what I was even about, or about what I was doing. So Hairat became the way to sort of introduce myself and say, this is what I’m trying to do; but there is a long film coming.
Moderator: What about this specific subject matter of this film? When did you kind of get started with the idea? When did you start finding out who you wanted to be the characters in your film? Because you follow so many different characters across the two hours, and you develop a real particular narrative. How did you find these people? How did you find these characters and develop relationships with them?
Jessica Beshir: I started this film as a process of reconnecting with my own country and reconnecting with something that I had to leave behind a long time ago and reconnecting with my own grandmother that had left a long time ago. So that’s how the process started. And then just as the process went through and opened up into the realities that I was finding myself in, in Harar, in the place where I grew up.
Moderator: How many years back does this process go? I saw this film, at Sundance, on my TV at home in January. It’s September. Now the timescale for these things takes some time to come to fruition, but the film was a long time in the making. So how long did it take you to make the film? How long did it take you to edit the film and put these pieces together?
Jessica Beshir: This film took about 10 years to make. It was a process. Not just a process of filmmaking, but a process of a life, the process of a lifetime, because I left Harar when I was a teenager, about 16. And it’s been a process to really understand and to really go through why do we have to be uprooted, from this place, from what we know, from our friends and from our land, from our spirituality – everything; and to have to process the new spaces that you are living with. So, you know, for me, this is the first time I had an opportunity to start going back and really to process all the loss that one has to go through when you leave your country. It’s almost like we’re not even allowed to process that grieving. Because leaving a country is a loss. There is a loss. And we are only allowed to speak of how lucky we are to be abroad, to have those opportunities, and so forth. But I don’t think I’m the only one who actually believes that there is a loss in having to leave your country and having to leave your people, having to leave your friends, your family. You have to go into this whole set of finding and fitting in all these spaces that have all these new values. So yeah, it’s been a process.
Moderator: I think it’s an extremely generous act to share something so personal with audiences across the country, and ultimately around the world and also in your own country. And that’s something I think about the generosity involved in sharing your story and putting your own truth and process and difficulties that you go through on the screen and sharing that, and maybe not even understanding or fully having a grasp on how that’s going to land with people, or the places it’s going to take people. Even if I’m writing a journal entry, it’s hard enough for me to commit words to a page. And that’s just sharing it with myself, compared to putting a film on a big screen. So, for maybe filmmakers in the audience, or artists, I mean, it’s a big question, potentially a painful question, but putting yourself on the screen, putting your personal stories out there, how do you even begin to think about that, as an artist?
Jessica Beshir: As an artist, I learned to think about this because of my father; it’s a simple question for me. My father is an Ethiopian man that comes from a certain generation, where, you know, he was studying in Mexico and becoming a surgeon, when there was a call to all the Ethiopians in the diaspora to return to their country, because we were being attacked from all the borders. So, it was a call, and my father heeded that call – he had no trepidations even to listening to what it was. He knew he was a surgeon; he knew he was needed, he responded to the call right away – to say, I am here, I am here to give back to what I know. I want to teach whoever wants to be a surgeon, I want to teach about medicine, I want to give back to my country. That was his impetus, you know, from the get-go. So, I learned that from him. He was all about giving back and helping to follow our country. So that is where I was coming from, a little bit.
Moderator: In terms of the way the film plays out, we do see a lot of very enjoyable but more conventional documentaries. I mentioned before you have a huge cast of characters, you have very interesting kind of soundscape and visual language, the very beautiful and deliberate use of black and white, which is something that is also present in Hairat. I’d just love to hear a bit more about your stylistic approach – for example, the black and white that you felt you needed to tell the story in. I want you to kind of take this anywhere you want. But I just love to hear you talk about the style and the craft of the film because I think it’s really quite special.
Jessica Beshir: Thank you. I want to say that, you know, this style truly emanates from what we were experiencing on the ground. We were experiencing a lot of teachings from the Sufi Muslim imams. I really wanted this film to emanate from those very specific spaces, such as the teachings of the imams. But not just that – looking at it geographically, what do we have with these very labyrinthic spaces in the Jugol Harar? How do we visualize that? Even the sense of just walking in that space, where you don’t have a through-line, where you can see five years from now or a year from now, but you have to be very present, because you don’t know what you’re going to find when you make a right turn or a left turn, because that is the geography of the space. So it was very important to bring that into the form of the film. Not just speaking about visual reality, but in the form of the film.
Moderator: That’s kind of a beautiful contradiction in a way, because you’re not imposing a sense of certainty on the film, you’re allowing things to happen, as they happen. There’s a real fluidity to the film. But also, it feels like you’re in such total control of it. So, it’s a really nice duality happening. We were just talking before this about music and sound and how they’re important. It’d be great to hear you talk about some of the musical choices, and Basinski, for example. And just how important the soundscape is to for the overall effect of the film?
Jessica Beshir: I think that a lot of that diegetic sound that was chosen for the film specifically, is incredibly important because it really reflects the soul of the film. It emanates from that Sufi Muslim space, that we’re talking about. We’re talking about Harar, the labyrinthic space, the Jugol, – that it’s not just this thing called Jugol. It’s a place where as soon as you start walking, you can’t see us five years from now or a year from now or 10 years from now, or even 10 minutes from now. Why? Because it’s labyrinth. So, the imams always talked about how important it is to be present. Because we don’t know. Because life is like that. Nothing is like a free highway. It doesn’t happen. So, I really wanted the film and the editing of the film to truly reflect that essence of what the Sufi imams and the Sufi teachings were about.
Moderator: There’s a certain logic to that. Talking about sound design, we experienced it in the room – I’ve only seen it on my laptop and on my TV. I can only imagine what an immersive experience it is for sound.
Jessica Beshir: I saw it on the big screen for the first time at New Directions New Films. Also, it was COVID and we edited it through COVID. And so obviously, we just had it on our little computer screen.
Moderator: That must have been an amazing experience. Now, I want to open it up to the audience.
Audience Member: Hi there! I’m actually originally from Harar, too. And so this story felt so real, I felt like I was there. And I felt that connection. And it’s something that unlike I’ve ever felt on the big screen. So, I just want to say thank you for that. Because I felt like this was me being at home, walking through Jugol and walking through the streets. So, my question is, how did returning back home help you through your process of grief, of reconciliation, of establishing that connection back home? How did returning back to Harar feel?
Jessica Beshir: Thank you so much for that question! And I am so happy it resonated with you and seriously that means everything to me. Because that’s exactly the conversation that I wanted to have. You know, because going back after so long, and finding your people, finding your languages, finding your “swag” – because people walk around with a certain swag – that was what I was looking for. I was looking to make up for the lost time. And I’m so happy that it spoke to you, I’m so happy that you saw that because that’s exactly who I was having a conversation with. I was having conversation with all of those people like you that had to leave. And this is what we had to leave. This is the beauty that we had to leave. Unfortunately, beauty has no currency where we come from. And these are our kids, these are our children. These are our people. And that is what I wanted to transmit, that’s exactly how I felt. I felt like saying, I see you. I hear you. I am a mom, I have a 14-year-old, and it’s incredible for me to think that 14-year-olds, our children, are making these incredibly hard decisions to leave in those treacherous journeys – because Mohammed in at the time of filming was 14, even though I met him 5 years earlier. I always felt like I was his mom. So, for me making this film was to say to the youth, I see you. I love you. I respect you. I appreciate you. You’re incredibly courageous. You’re incredibly – everything. And I see what you’re going through.
Audience Member: Just from a son’s perspective, there’s a lot of generational vulnerability and generational vulnerability in terms of their relationship with their father. It was so present and so complex. To see a mother have that perspective of seeing the son, to have that relationship with the father – how did you find that? It seems very personal. How did you, as a mother, find the son and father connection?
Jessica Beshir: Thank you for the question. You know, one of the things that first happened when I started shooting was that I had all of these kids from Harar, surrounding me, in a beautiful way. Because they were curious – what is she doing here? What is she shooting? What is she seeing in that tree? It was beautiful. And so I surrounded myself with kids throughout my shoot. I felt incredibly secure, surrounded by so many kids. And one of those kids was Mohammed, the young boy that you see in the film. He was almost like my son. Truly, a lot of the things that were happening around the shoot were divine intervention. Because Mohammed came to me, as sort of like a mother figure that he didn’t have. His mom actually left, and he was living with his father. I am a mom of a 14-year-old. When I was there shooting, I was not there with my daughter, so we found each other. And to see this generation having to make so many difficult decisions at this very young age, at my daughter’s age, was incredible. I was so indignant, to see a lot of us perishing at the Red Sea, or the Mediterranean – it was so heart wrenching. And so, to me, this film is a lot about centering them and say, I see you, I understand you. I’m with you. I support you. And I love you. That is the feelings that I have for Mohammed.
Audience Member: How did you develop that working relationship to get them to be who they were in your film in front of the camera?
Jessica Beshir: Most of the people that I was having a relationship with wanted to share what they were going through. None of them are actors, of course. These are the realities that people are going through. When I was making this film, I was thinking of sort of like a temple where you go to sort of confess – not just confess because you don’t have to confess – but sort of really reveal what’s in your heart, as if this was a prayer. When you pray, when you ask, when you implore – there are certain things that you do. I felt this was that way. And so a lot of the people that came into the film, they understood what I was trying to do. They wanted to come in and just sort of truly express what’s in their hearts, in a way as a prayer. So that’s what I can say, when it comes to people that were not trained actors, and I was not interested in trained actors. It was all about what’s truly happening in the town from the perspective of the people that live there.