Los Angeles Times

Power of khat in rural Ethiopia

- By Robert Abele

Filmmaker Jessica Beshir’s bending, swaying nonfiction journey “Faya Dayi” explores rural Ethopia by way of the production and consumptio­n of the chewable narcotic leaf called khat — an approach not in the traditiona­l manner of an issue documentar­y or informatio­nal travelogue, however, but as a state of mind to be received. That drug, in other words, called cinema.

Yes, there are harvesters, packagers and users speaking to us, and a camera that captures a community dependent on and wary of its grip. Yet in eschewing directness of intent for the artful massaging of space, sound and rhythm, Beshir’s film — a very personal project for the Mexican Ethiopian director, which she shot over 10 years — stakes a richer claim to our sense of the place and the effect of its most lucrative crop.

The black-and-white photograph­y is tenderly textured even in its starkness, as evocative with a diaphanous curtain in sunlight as with people working at night, and the nature all around them. It’s also a melancholi­c indicator, however, that while this is a beautiful culture, it’s in the grip of a monochrome economy that’s swallowing everyone.

“Everyone chews to get away,” one boy’s voice-over tells us. “Their flesh is here but their soul is gone.”

The bustle of khat’s reaping in the fields, bundling in packed warehouses and selling on the streets is — not unlike the plant’s stimulatin­g effects — one source of energy in the film, while interiors with transfixed chewers and ritualized users (it’s been a Sufi pathway to transcende­nce for centuries) create another mood entirely.

The heartbeat of Beshir’s film, though, is with its wandering young narrators — people looking for a way out of a homeland they love and worry for. Her threading of their collective searching presence, like lonely guides navigating an encompassi­ng, self-medicated haze, is what gives “Faya Dayi” its dignifying, transfixin­g intimacy and what renders it unlike any other documentar­y you’re likely to see.

 ?? Janus Films ?? “FAYA DAYI” intimately explores Ethiopia, its people and the powerful narcotic leaf known as khat.
Janus Films “FAYA DAYI” intimately explores Ethiopia, its people and the powerful narcotic leaf known as khat.

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