Jessica Beshir on Exploring Sacred Spaces in “Faya Dayi”

Before it had a name, “Faya Dayi” began life in a camcorder that Jessica Beshir brought with her on trips between Ethiopia where her grandmother lived and Mexico where her father had resettled, carrying footage from the two places to remind one another what life was like in the other. Her father had not wanted to leave a place of such physical beauty, but the political situation under the Mengistu and Derg regimes forced his hand and it would be a few decades before his daughter returned to the Oromo region with the hope of reconnecting with her roots, surprised to learn that even as the country had transformed itself into a democracy, it was still beholden to dominant force in khat, a hallucinogen illegal in most places that had become one of the country’s primary exports and one of the few crops that could be grown under increasingly inhospitable conditions due to climate change.

The weight of the industry that’s sprung up around the drug can be felt in every scene of “Faya Dayi” as Beshir keeps coming back to the punishing work involved in producing it, from picking it in the fields to transporting it deep into the night so it doesn’t dry out, yet she uses the space in between to capture something far more elusive as you come to learn of its place in the community as both a spiritual elixir and a sedative, allowing the film to become just as spellbinding. Coming into focus through the conversations of a young man named Mami and his friend Ibrahim, who can see little opportunity beyond harvesting khat and how many ease their pain from working so hard by taking the drug, the film depicts a vicious cycle where Ethiopians are unlikely to benefit from the fruits of their labor in any way that could lift them up, yet as the younger generation ponders migrating elsewhere, there is so much in the community to stay for as town elders hold onto exquisite and soulful traditions and their imaginations are as fertile as the soil.

A sensational film by any measure, “Faya Dayi” took a decade of filming on and off for the now Brooklyn-based Beshir, who had no obvious references for what she would make and has created an experience that’s wholly unique. Approaching the profound with its ingenious technique, occasionally divorcing sound from the image to inject poetry both seen and spoken into the mix and shooting in a bewitching monochrome that allows the smoke of the khat to practically waft off the screen and feel as it if it’s guiding the film’s flow, the film is both revelatory as a portrait of Ethiopia as a place seen in so many different ways by its residents and the introduction to a distinctive new artist in Beshir. With the film beginning its theatrical run after premiering earlier this year at Sundance and becoming a favorite at every festival it’s played since including New Directors/New Films, True/False and Full Frame, the filmmaker spoke about how she tapped into the magic of her ancestral home and worked towards a cinematic language that could do justice to it.

You’ve said that your earlier short “Hairat” was actually intended at one point to be a part of this film, but now seeing “Faya Dayi,” it’s interesting to see because tonally you can see ideas you applied, but in fact it’s a separate piece. Did putting that together help you figure out what the feature would be?

“Hairat” was [initially] part of this film because I’ve been making this film for a long time, and I was just financing it as my own little thing, but the time came to start having some edits and I just was like, “I don’t know anybody in the industry. I’m just going [to Ethiopia] with my camera and come back,” but I thought I need to come up with some work in order for me to introduce myself to people and to be able to relate to them what I’m trying to do. I really didn’t know how to write these grant petitions and it was just very difficult for me to verbalize exactly what this film was about, because that is always the question, “What is this film about?”

That’s how I decided to isolate something that could stand on its own, so that I can show people because it was just very difficult for me and I thought the best thing to do is to edit this piece and I’m going to put a lot of the elements that I somehow I’m seeing in the longer piece. That’s how I ended up with [“Hairat”], and it was sitting here for months until I finally met an another film director who saw it and said, “You have to send that to Sundance.” And I was like, “What?!?” He said, “You have to send it” and he showed me how to do Without a Box [the festival submission service], and at that time, I was so broke. I’m like, “No, this is 80 bucks.” And he’s like, “Not at all. I’ll go to bat with you, come on, you’ve got to send it.” That was the only festival I sent it to, and to my surprise, I ended up getting a call that it got in, so that was really crucial in the development of what happened after. It was a little tiny piece, but something that could show my temperament.

I’m so glad that you spent the 80 bucks.

The best 80 bucks! [laughs]

What’s so remarkable to me about “Faya Dayi” is how you understand the power khat has over the community, both as a narcotic and as its prime economic driver, through the rhythm of seeing the production and consumption of it as a cycle – did you know how this might come together in that sense early on?

Oh, absolutely. Even in the intentionality that goes behind when you’re shooting, it was almost like I was ushered through with those rhythms and cadences that emanate from those Sufi spaces. Those prayers and invocations, those chants of call and response at the farms — [the film is] ingrained in that, in that space and in Harar and the whole of Ethiopia truly. My shooting was very much informed in a way where whoever it is that I was engaging [with], I was having a response to what they were seeing. Recently, a friend of mine was reading me a story that she wrote over the phone, and she would say a paragraph, and then she would be quiet because she was waiting for the response, so it could be [simply an] “ahhhhh,” but there has to be some rhythmic aspect of it too that encourages you as a storyteller to continue, so [the filming] was very much informed by that and I wanted the cut also embody that spirituality and those sounds and rhythms that could lead us into interior intonations of the soul.

It must’ve been an exciting moment when you realized you could disassociate the sound from the image in certain places to create that soulful experience. What was it like figuring that out?

Yes, it was the most exciting part of it all because there were many [aspects] of disassociation that allowed me to really bring forth and to articulate many of the ideas, whether it is image-wise or sound, [realizing] what you can conjure when you put these two [disparate things] together and where, and at what time. A lot of the process had to be very intuitive, just trusting that I’m already immersed in that world and that world is existing inside of me, so therefore, whatever is compelling is coming from that organic space. That’s what I encouraged the editors that I worked with to embrace in this film, editing the film as [if it were] a prayer that has its own rhythms and cadences. We spoke so much specifically about this, and also in thinking of those different spatial and temporal registers. That was incredibly exciting because it really allowed us to bring forth those elements that immerse you into a certain experience and to certain hidden interiors.

The notion of perspective is fascinating in this as well – of course, you’re behind the camera, but you’ll often be able to take someone that appears in front of you and afterwards, it feels like you’re seeing things as they would. Was it interesting to develop that language?

Yeah. That, you see for me, and I am articulating as we go because I’m thinking of these things [only] in retrospect. But even then, I’ll go back to that call and response relationship, and when I say “relationship,” that requires and demands trust, and that’s where I was finding most of [the people on screen]. Most of them were my friends from the past or new friends that I made, so I was immersing myself [as a cinematographer] in the life as if it was my own because whether it is in the farms, we’re sleeping all together, we’re eating all together, waking up all together, we’re living that life. It’s that immediacy of relationship that I was interested in very much, whether it was with the Imams, whether it is with Mumi, the kid, or anyone actually, or the woman that sings while she’s sewing — she’s my friend and she asked me to come join her for lunch one day [when] somebody was supposed to come pick me up to shoot something [else], but those people never came, so I was just sitting there and she started sewing after we ate lunch and I just took out my camera, responding to that moment. Most of the time it was like that.

If that’s the case, are there any directions this took you could get excited about that you may not have anticipated?

One of the beautiful things that happened is that when I first started to intentionally go to shoot this, I was living in New York, so I didn’t have months and months [to spend abroad]. I would have three weeks here or a maximum of four weeks every time I went, and the beautiful thing that happened was that the Imams who became my friends pulled me over one day in one of those ceremonies where I was hanging out with them and they advised me, “Look, we understand that you’re trying to do something and you’re always in a hurry. And when you do that, you’re going to miss everything. So you need to truly forget that sense of time that you’re coming with because this space has its own time. And that has nothing to do with the time that you are talking about, so therefore when you come here, especially in that walled city, you have to leave that time alone. You leave that time at the gate, and then you come in and then slowly you start understanding that this has its own flow on way of operating. And you will see that the film is going to reveal itself to you. You don’t have to chase it. You just need to be aware and present and look with all your senses.

That’s precisely what happened. So that was a very beautiful moment of teaching for me, but not just in regards to this film, but in regards to everything. It was a joy to really experience that because even that poet that you see sitting there eating his khait every day [in the film], I met him because one day I was just hanging out with the Imams and he happened to pass by, in a hurry with his jobs, so they introduced me to him. Later on when we spoke, he showed up and I didn’t even know he was going to say his poem [that’s now central to the film], but this [poem] was his offering. He didn’t know anything and I wasn’t instructing him. I asked, whatever it is that you offer, that is what we do, and with a lot of the people, this is exactly what was happening.

“Faya Dayi” opens on September 3rd in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and will expand in the weeks ahead. A full list of cities and dates is here.