SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Set in the mountains of Ethiopia, Faya Dayi tells the story of khat, a plant used by Sufi Muslims during meditation. Khat has become a habitual part of life in Ethiopia; it is the nation’s biggest cash crop and has uses in religion and recreation. Director Jessica Beshir displays effortless creativity and an experimental structure as she invites audiences into khat’s culture.
Faya Dayi has a very loose narrative structure. The documentary follows four main storylines: the lives of those harvesting khat; young boys hoping for a new life in Egypt; an older man committed to living by the Qur’an; and a woman lamenting being a mistress. The film jumps in and out of dozens of stories, attempting to encapsulate the culture as a whole. At its heart, the movie takes viewers into the complex relationship Ethiopia has with khat; some people face addiction, while others use it to find enlightenment. Using minimal dialogue, it tells the plant’s elaborate history by creating a somber tone and noir-esque visuals.
“…is moving poetry about the struggles in khat fields and Ethiopia itself.”
The film’s surrealist structure frees it to focus on the feelings people have towards khat, rather than giving vast background information on the plant itself. Thanks to the filmmaker’s approach, viewers experience the spirituality of meditation huts, empathize with workers longing for something better, and feel the weight of loss in every frame.
I’ve seen many documentaries; I actively consume them because you can learn so much about a completely different perspective in such a short time. In Faya Dayi, I cannot say that I was taught anything in the realm of facts or statistics about Ethiopia, khat, or Islam. However, what the documentary lacks in information, it makes up for by excellently capturing a cultural and spiritual experience. Leaving a traditional narrative structure in the dust, Beshir uses breathtaking cinematography to bring you into the Horn of Africa. The movie is moving poetry about the struggles in khat fields and Ethiopia itself.
Faya Dayi screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…uses breathtaking cinematography to bring you into the Horn of Africa."