Khat is Ethiopia’s biggest cash crop, making serious business from a spiritual high: When chewed, the leaves of the flowering green plant act as a stimulant, believed in certain corners of Sufism to aid prayer and enable transcendence. Others make less lofty demands of it, simply chewing the leaves to mellow out, making days of drudgery pass a little more softly — including those who work gruelingly in the khat trade.
Mexican-Ethopian docmaker Jessica Beshir presents a country caught in a khat haze in her debut feature “Faya Dayi,” constructing a loose intergenerational narrative around the elder harvesters for whom khat is both their daily bread and daily escape, and the youngsters keen to escape its enveloping, addictive aura. Yet it rather feels as if the central character in this stylishly oblique hybrid work is khat itself: Shot by Beshir herself in sumptuous, tissue-textured black and white, “Faya Dayi” is predominantly a mood piece that seeks to evoke the leaf’s own perception-altering properties.
In this regard, the film is an immersive success, as the languid rhythms of the filmmaking mirror the woozy impact of the drug, while a storytelling style that flickers casually between observational verité and esoteric myth-building suggests an in-and-out grasp on reality. It’s a seductive device that nonetheless palls a little as “Faya Dayi” unfurls across two calculatedly low-energy hours, gliding between human subjects to whom we are only superficially and selectively introduced; once the smoke clears, it’s hard not to feel a lot of rich socioeconomic detail has escaped our grasp. Still, this is an arresting arrival for its solo director-writer-producer-DP: Its recent Sundance premiere should yield many further festival berths, and likely interest from specialty and documentary streaming services.
Ambient vignettes variously portray the harvesting, distribution and consumption of khat, all contained within the walled Ethiopian city of Harar, which is seen as the plant’s birthplace and business hub. Threading these is the unassuming figure of Mohammed, a 14-year-old dogsbody for local manufacturers. Nominally cared for by his abusive, khat-addicted father, he dreams of escaping to Saudi Arabia, where his absent mother supposedly journeyed years before. Mohammed represents a generation of young Harar natives who see no prospects in the industry that has consumed their parents, though the perils and insecurities of refugee life loom large: “Can you get a mother’s love from a stepmother? It’s the same with a country that’s not your own,” someone warns him.
Not that Harar offers Mohammed much mothering to begin with: Through his eyes, we view his father’s generation having surrendered to an unambitious listlessness, to which khat acts as both cause and cure. The gauzy, silvery imagery conjured by Beshir’s camera is illustrative of its calming, lightly hallucinogenic effect, though it doesn’t mask the domestic dilapidation in the corners of each frame. Other fragments of human narrative, however, never come into focus, by design or otherwise: A woman pines mistily for a lost (or escaped) lover, while another teenaged boy is forced to go into khat production to care for his family after his father’s death.
Such tales of woe gradually form a tapestry of national ailment and eventual resignation, which is where the khat comes in: “Everyone chews to get away,” Mohammed observes morosely, determined to get away by other means. There’s a more grittily anthropological documentary to be made about a population under the leaf’s spell, though “Faya Dayi” is more concerned with microcosmic tableaux, an approach well-served by Beshir’s knack for stunning image-making: Incidental everyday shot, whether of a tree of birds huddling in the breeze or two boys patiently daubing over a new wattle hut, are absorbed into the film’s mesmeric evocation of pained lives slowed to a bearable pace. Amid such scenes, a mystical running voiceover details local lore concerning the quest for eternal life, sounding as far removed as can be from the reality of Harar: It’s not immortality that Mohammed seeks, merely a future.