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Jessica Beshir’s Seamless Symphony of Ethiopia

Jessica Beshir discusses her feature debut, "Faya Dayi," and how she was inspired to make a film in her father's native country of Ethiopia.
Ela Bittencourt
Jessica Beshir may have taken years to finally pick up the camera, but her debut feature, Faya Dayi, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 suggests that her formidable patience and dedication have all served her well, allowing her to develop a voice and a vision that are complex and subtly layered, plus uniquely her own. Born in Mexico City, to an Ethiopian father and a Mexican mother, Beshir was suddenly uprooted when her father, who was a doctor, decided to return to his native country, after the outbreak of a civil war. Her father’s gritty dedication made Beshir originally want to be a doctor, then to study politics, and then, eventually, to return and film the places and people that she had left behind in Ethiopia.
Faya Dayi mesmerizes thanks to its refined, distilled compositions. As Beshir follows farmers who plant khat—a traditional crop in the region—imams, for whom khat is part of daily meditation, and women and children, some of whom also work in the khat trade, the camera zooms in on fine details, establishing looping visual echoes (e.g. in one shot, a pair of hands tenderly folded a man’s chest, in another, hands tending to khat with a similar gestural tenderness). The black-and-white cinematography brings out soft chiaroscuros and deepens the inky shadows against piercing light, thus creating a contrasty and mysterious visuality. Beshir’s in-depth, extended exploration of her themes also acts as a counterweight to the lyrical approach, ensuring that the latter never falls into hollow symbolism: On the contrary, as stories overlap in the voiceover, the khat itself comes across as a complex societal construct, a plant that brings illumination, and has long been tied to the dynamics of mysticism and of labor in the region, but that also, of late, is thrown into a sharp relief of addiction and of mounting despair.
I caught up with Beshir on the phone, the director’s warm voice and her enveloping bright laugh crackling over my old-school landline, as she spoke from her home, in Brooklyn.

NOTEBOOK: Faya Dayi is an intricate mosaic of interconnected stories that are always rooted in our senses. How did you approach weaving such diverse threads, from khat workers and farmers to children, mothers and imams? Those who dream of leaving Ethiopia and those left behind?
JESSICA BESHIR: For the most part, the people who populate the film have become my friends. I wanted to bring windows into all these different realities that speak to each other, to create a world where everyone is in conversation with one another. When you listen to the woman saying she wants to leave, because she no longer believes in her marriage, her words are speaking to [the young boy] Mohammad who is always in conversation with his mother [who has left Ethiopia]. Whenever somebody is deciding to leave, somebody else is missing somebody. All these stories are interconnected. It’s a kaleidoscopic view of a world refracting onto each other, like a light on a diamond that refracts in all different directions, though it comes from a single source.
NOTEBOOK: I love the metaphor of refraction. In a way, your identity is also refracted or split, from being born in Mexico to having grown up in Ethiopia during the war to then studying in California and settling down in Brooklyn. I wonder how these shifts inform your work.
BESHIR: Split identity is my life. Having grown up in Ethiopia in the late ‘70s, during the war, by the time I was sixteen I already had, in a way, a very clear identity. I was going to become a doctor, like my father. But then we had to leave the country, because of the communist regime. I felt terribly uprooted. I finished high school in Mexico City, but then left again, for California, because most of my Ethiopian friends were by then political refugees in the United States. 
I always had this huge sense of indignation of how big powers played out their politics in foreign lands, especially in Africa. I wanted to study politics and international relations at Berkeley, but that didn’t even last a year. I couldn’t afford film school, because I was a foreign student, working 24/7 to pay tuition. I spoke with one of the chairs of the UCLA film school who wrote about nomadic cinema. It really spoke to my experience, because my life was a chain of ruptures. I watched the L.A. Rebellion films, and came to New York to go to film school, but then got married and had a child. The possibility of film school started to fade away. Then I decided to go back to Ethiopia to visit my grandmother who was very old. When you leave your country in such a sudden way there is a lot of trauma that is unspoken, but it’s there. None of us had gone back, but I just knew I had to make something. It was a healing. Just shooting was medicine for me. Yet it was also really shocking to see some of the friends that I knew from school who were now religiously chewing khat. The plant had been around for centuries, but before farmers had chewed it to get energy for work. Now people were chewing but not having jobs. It was a way to kill time, to kill a lot of frustration. You see the youth waking up every day with so much potential, smiling at the sun, but by noon that sun is not returning a smile, and they start looking for khat, because what else is there to do? But I also became close to the Sufi imams in Jagul and the farmers who were Sufis. What they said resonated with my life. One of the things that an imam said, and I will never forget, is that the observer is the observed. I realized I had picked up my camera and taught myself to use it to understand what this meant. 
NOTEBOOK: You then worked on the film for roughly ten years, starting in 2011, to the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2021. I wonder how you kept going on a project that demanded such a sustained commitment and what were its different stages?
BESHIR: The first time I started shooting in Harar, I did not know yet what shape the film would take. I shot a lot of footage on a farm and of landscape, which led me to understand the complicated political relationship when it comes to land ownership. The children of most of the Oromo farmers that I filmed staged a huge and very brave protest against land-grabbing by the government that had taken almost three years, so land was a very delicate issue. But then I also live in Brooklyn and I’m a single mom, so it was very hard to envision myself going to Harar for months on end. I made a pact with myself instead that I was going to have to have patience. Every few weeks I had here or there I was going to go back and dedicate myself to this project. 
Another reason why it took so long was because understanding the land and khat is one thing, but then understanding the fabric of a society and its spiritual connections is another. I don’t think I could have made this film in 2011.. It had to marinate, not just thematically but also in terms of form. In this sense, I was very lucky. Since I had to finance the film myself, I had complete freedom to do exactly as I needed to. I could stay true to my vision.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of form, I can easily imagine a documentary about how daily chewing of khat alters the fabric of a society as an explanatory, observational film, which is the opposite of the one you’ve made. What has informed your sensory approach to cinema?
BESHIR: Thank you for saying that. Making a more mainstream film could have been possible, but I made this film how my gut wanted it. I have some 500 interviews. I was interviewing everyone I could, but because I needed to learn, not because I needed to put them in the film. Observation was never my intent. I was never observing, I was having a relationship. That’s a huge difference, because observation, for me, sounds very colonialist. But I wasn’t necessarily resisting narration, per say, it’s just not attractive to me. And it never occurred to me that I needed to explain anything. I felt that the images conveyed what I wanted them to convey. So I tried initially not to show the film to too many people. I didn’t want to be persuaded or to be afraid that others are not going to understand it. I was inspired by Jelol, the Walled City, which is a labyrinthian zigzag. You don’t know what’s coming next. The reason why we need to see a storyline straight like a highway is because we need control, which comes from a fear of being present right here right now, without having necessarily to anticipate what’s next. This is the big malaise we encounter [in the West]—we’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Harar for me is another experience of time and space. The people in Harar always say, “Inshallah,” “God willing,” because you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a very Sufi philosophy. 
NOTEBOOK: Similarly to your short film, Hairat, Faya Dayi is quite nocturnal. This seems partly due to the transports of the khat leaves which take place by night.
BESHIR: Absolutely. Khat, as I show it in the film, is a daily ritual: harvest in the morning, the different stages throughout the day where it’s transported and processed, then transported to another place where it’s processed even further, until it goes to market or export. The driving happens by night, because the khat leaves start to lose their chemical quality the moment you cut them, so the process from harvest to market has to be immediate. Also the drivers transport khat by car into Somalia overnight, because otherwise the sun will burn it. 
NOTEBOOK: I wonder, since you said in your interview with Filmmaker Magazine that you see the landscape of your childhood in color, how did you come to film in black and white?
BESHIR: The decision was there from the start. I was always thinking about the internal world that moved me. Yes, it was in the landscape, the people, but there were also inner utterings, and the black and white was going to be the space where these utterings would live.
NOTEBOOK: Black-and-white also draws the viewer’s eye to contours, contrasts and the richness of shadows, which in turn make the film seem so much more dreamlike.
BESHIR: Yes, another thing that is very important is the mystical myth about the three imams that went to search for the water of eternal life, to ward off the fifty years of death – one of them becomes daylight, the other becomes eternal night. That’s the notion I wanted to convey throughout the film with the black and white. It’s almost like a genesis story about light, or a creation story. I wanted to include it not just as a story to be told, but also applied to form.
NOTEBOOK: You establish the mystical sense not only through image but also intricate weaving of sound. How did your various collaborators, particularly the Ethiopian singer and the international composers whose music informs the film, come onto the project?
BESHIR: I met the Ethiopian singer Mehandis Geleto when I was staying at a student dormitory at the local university where he was shooting a television show. The first thing he sang is the first thing you hear in the movie. I was doing this project for so long that it’s sometimes easy to despair, but there were so many moments, like Geleto’s singing, when it felt like I was being guided. The violinist Kaethe Hostetter was living in Ethiopia, playing in an Ethiopian band, when we met about ten years ago, so we had many conversations about music. She sent me a piece that she had started to compose and I knew I wanted to include it. William Basinski really inspired my edits. I love ambiance music. When my sound designer said that I should check out Basinski, I went home and just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I listened to every single of his pieces and found two that I didn’t want to do without: “Cascade” and “Water Music.” These names! They have so much to do with my film. Basinski uses a loop theme, and Faya Dayi is very much about the loop that goes on and on and on, twenty-four days, 365 days a year. It just never stops. That is how I saw the ballad of khat when I was there. Every movement coming through had a slight variation that’s delicate and so beautiful. I was in love with it. Adrian Aniol’s album, which the music for my film comes from, is titled, How to Disappear Completely. For me it’s all so Sufi, because that’s all I hear from my Sufi friends in Harar. They want to disappear through meditation. We also started to use the variation of drums with my editor Jeanne Applegate [Applegate and Dustin Waldman were the film’s two editors], even before the edits. We were trying to figure out how to create a seamless symphony of a place.

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New Directors New FilmsFestival CoverageJessica BeshirSundance 2021InterviewsNew Directors New Films 2021Sundance
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