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Ethiopia: Film ‘Faya Dayi’ delves into the country’s khat obsession

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 22 October 2021 09:48

Still from 'Faya Dayi'
Holding a khat branch. Still from 'Faya Dayi'.

Filmmaker and actress Jessica Beshir discovered khat purely by accident. In her film Faya Dayi, which debuted to instant critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival in January before winning the grand jury prize at Visions du Réel in Switzerland, she traces the growing reliance on Ethiopia’s khat trade in her home region of Harar in an attempt to pin down a country she can hardly recognise anymore.

Born in Mexico City to an Ethiopian father and a Mexican mother, Brooklyn-based Beshir was raised in Harar, Ethiopia. She was a child when her family was uprooted and forced to flee their homeland during the political upheaval created by the Derg regime: the socialist military junta that seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie I.

For Faya Dayi, the debut feature-length documentary that she wrote, produced and filmed single-handedly in her hometown over a period of ten years, Beshir makes a point of connecting with this idea of home, tracing its changing faces.

Still from Faya Dayi

Khat takes over

During the time that Beshir’s family fled Ethiopia, the country had been changing in more ways than one. The agriculture-dependent economy, renowned for its coffee exports, was undergoing a transition, for a variety of reasons. This included increasing demand and ease of planting khat – a stimulant leaf containing cathinone, an amphetamine-like substance said to induce euphoria, improve concentration and alertness among other qualities – now the chief driver of foreign exchange.

On one of her visits, during a 13-hour car drive from Addis-Ababa to her native Harar up in the highlands, Beshir observed that the rich variety of colours reflective of the region’s diverse vegetation had given way to a green blanket of one single crop, khat.

The film plays with light and shadow in monochrome to create a transcendental mood that makes you feel the effects of khat…

She also noticed that in the afternoons, at about 1pm, the adults would disappear into bercha-houses: social enclaves where people meet to chew khat. She says: “It dawned on me that the whole economy […] revolved around khat a lot more than it used to be when I was growing up there. I started shooting with my little camera without knowing anyone in the film industry.”

Official figures are hard to come by – a great deal of the khat trade is informal – but research suggests that at least 1.2m acres of Ethiopia’s land mass is devoted to growing khat. It is estimated that about 70% of agricultural land in the Harar region is now allocated to growing khat.

Carrying khat. Still from Faya Dayi

Cinematography lends itself to making ‘you feel the effects of khat’

Form bending and visually dazzling, the hypnotic hybrid of fact and fiction that Beshir achieves on Faya Dayi speaks its own language. Taryn Joffe, a film curator and critic who works with the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival where Faya Dayi was programmed in June, tells The Africa Report: “The film plays with light and shadow in monochrome to create a transcendental mood that makes you feel the effects of khat – the drug being farmed, harvested and consumed by the characters.”

Still from Faya Dayi

Paying only scant attention to narrative coherence, Faya Dayi attempts a complex cinematic distillation of the all-encompassing khat economy through the people, the places and their history. Beshir says: “Beyond statistics – and there are all kinds of statistics that can be pulled out about khat and the trade of it – what I wanted to translate is the stuff that is intangible, the feelings, effects.”

History of khat

Khat can be traced as far back as the 11th century when Sufi imams discovered the psychotropic green leaf while on their quest for eternity. For centuries, its stimulating use has grown across the Horn of Africa region and the Arabian Peninsula. Consumption has since been democratised, spilling over to neighbouring countries like Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti.

Beyond the economic importance, khat has assumed immense social and cultural significance. Depending on who is using it, it can be taken as tea, applied for medicinal purposes and consumed as a drug of abuse. People offer their guests khat at home. Students, facing the pressure of exams, chew khat to study all night. Unemployed youth- a significant portion of Ethiopia’s population- turn to khat to seek respite from their frustrations.

For the initiated, chewing khat starts out as response to a ‘harara’ or craving. This initial longing gives way to a euphoric state characterised by lots of chatting. The semi-catatonic state of ‘merkana’ comes next, occasioned by quietness and deep introspection. “It is complex thematically because in as much as there are harmful effects on the person, khat is also responsible for creating so many jobs,” Beshir says.

Still from Faya Dayi

Honoring this complexity was important to Beshir and this is reflected in the singular way that she approached filming Faya Dayi. She considers the people she collaborated with on the film friends; from the farmers, to the traders and the ordinary people. Faya Dayi is a response to the personal relationships she shares with them.

‘No reason to make another exposé of an African country’

A string of meetings with potential producers fell through because they had their own ideas – none of them related to her vision of what the film should be. Beshir says: “There was no reason for me to make another exposé of an African country, this was never about that. They kept talking about how to package it to be the next drug movie and I was appalled. [Was I] to turn my friends into some drug lords now?”

Still from film 'Faya Dayi'
Still from film ‘Faya Dayi’.

This resistance to being marketed as a certain kind of product does not come from a place of naivety. Beshir is well aware that Faya Dayi, which has had a pretty decent global festival run, isn’t going to work for everyone, and she has since gotten a crash course on how the documentary industrial complex works, particularly when it comes to films from this part of the world.

I am aware it is not a film for everybody. I knew that, but this is the way I wanted my film to exist.

However, it was important for her to make the film she wanted. This elusive quality is what has made the film a favourite among cineastes.

Still from film Faya Dayi

“[It is] unlike anything I’ve experienced previously and is memorable in a way that makes you want to implore others to see it. It produces that rare feeling of utter amazement when cinema shakes you,” Joffe said after watching Faya Dayi for the first time.

Beshir is surprised by the acclaim Faya Dayi has gotten so far, but remains modest about her expectations, “I am aware it is not a film for everybody. I knew that, but this is the way I wanted my film to exist.”

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