This feature debut from Mexican Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir positions itself as trance-state cinema. It is, put most simply, a portrait of rural Ethiopia, but one that specifically centres around khat, a plant able to induce euphoria (one prized for supposed mystical properties). The film has no clear drive, but it returns to the khat. It returns to those harvesting it, to those in its haze and to those caught under different circumstances that are subtly analogised to this (or that feed off of the wider atmosphere). It is a cinematic jumping off point, a central motif that allows the film to spread its wings and effortlessly transition through images. In doing so, it evokes something truly oneiric: a trance state created through sequences that feel like waking dreams.
The most evident quality of Faya Dayi is its beauty. The film is shot, almost solely, in sublime monochrome. There is a mastery of contrast, of the interplay between light and darkness. This restricted colour palette only adds to the ethereality, and gives the film real texture. Black and white always draws the viewers attention to texture: to surfaces, materials and to the subtle differences that colour can overwhelm. It is a perfect choice for a film as slow and meditative as this, for a film obsessed with tiny differentiations and details. It also helps that each frame is perfectly composed. It is a very arty film. Faya Dayi is a documentary but it is more interested in evoking reality through artistry than through a more traditionally verité approach. Moments are clearly curated, either by the framing or within the frame, all perfectly chosen for resonance. The result is a collection of evocative imagery, ambiguously so, of lingering visuals that open up thought and interpretation.
For most of the time, the camera lingers. Narration peters in and out but what remains is the visual: a frame ready for our contemplation. What we see is undeniably beautiful and often contains no clear meaning, no specific anchor. There is a consistent tone to the film, and connections via topics, but the viewer is given a lot of power over interpretation. Even when an image so clearly denotes something, it connotes something else. Or, the act of lingering on the image gives you enough time to think more broadly. To take more in. The cumulative effect is a documentary that never proclaims its meaning or importance, that never preaches (even though it is very much a document of oppression and suffering put onto people), but also of a film that so naturally radiates sheer necessity. It exists not for an argument but because it needs to exists, because it is inherently vital.
As mentioned, so much of the imagery and narrativizing is focused on oppression (subjugation, even). We learn about limitation and restriction, doing so while having the freedom to watch: the film positions the viewer at a discursive distance from its content, this forges a divide that opens up a conversation. But, the people in this film, and the locations within it, are not defined by suffering. The people are defined by humanity, allowed to actually exist on screen outside of narrow polemics. The act of documenting, of selecting and curating footage, does not add another restriction, it does not feel limiting or selective. The viewer’s eyes are opened up, rather than our sight being restricted. What we see are snapshots of life, tastes of wider existences, but existences that don’t feel limited by the screen.
Faya Dayi truly is transportive cinema. It has such beautiful sound and visual design, and paints such an evocative portrait of a people and place that is infrequently shown in cinema (in cinema accessible as widely as this). Watching it feels like a dream, a privileged insight into ethereal imagery that exists beyond full comprehension but always in conversation with it. It is a work of cultural specificity and spiritual breadth, a calming one as well as a melancholic one. It feels special, a reminder (as if it were needed), that cinema is everywhere, that poetry is everywhere and that art is everywhere. All we need to do is get the right people to point their cameras at the right things, then the result is simply magic.