‘Faya Dayi’ Review: A Dream State

Shot in a rural Ethiopian town, the tone poem “Faya Dayi” settles into a trance-like flow. We watch men and occasionally women musing to one another — about their dreams for the future or about distant lovers, mothers and fathers — but the feel is dreamlike, like a falling dusk, even when the concerns are concrete.

Some of that comes from the local importance of khat — an addictive leaf that induces altered states when chewed (variously euphoric and melancholic). But while many are shown harvesting, warehousing, or otherwise touched by the crop, not everyone is under its influence. The documentary’s mystical sensation, after all, springs from choices by the director, Jessica Beshir, particularly the allusive style and monochrome black-and-white photography.

Beshir left Ethiopia as a teenager and, returning as an adult to see family, she was struck by khat’s dominance. Also the cinematographer and producer, she flouts common vérité approaches in mapping out the changed community. Ritual objects and dramatic fragments — two kids bathing, a scuffle over emigrating, a madeleine-like musing on coffee — hold center stage more than bright narrative threads. The smoky texture of the images led me to think of her technique as a kind of sfumato: shading in and out of moods of presence, absence and longing.

A voice-over recalls the Sufi tale about seeking eternal life (a nod to the spiritual role of khat). Unifying this elliptical canvas is the sense of a contemplative search, which can also mean an escape from an altered homeland, perhaps to dull what feels lost.

Faya Dayi
Not rated. In Amharic, Harari, and Oromo with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters.

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