There's nothing I love more than an underlying current of melancholy floating beneath a film, giving the piece a tone and a texture unlike anything else. As great as a romance or a horror movie can be, if there's a film that finds that balance of emotional realism and a sadness based in the everyday mundanities of existence, it will stick to your bones in a way that no specific genre can reach. Most don't have sharp enough edges to dredge quite that deeply.
Writer/director Jessica Beshir's existential masterpiece, "Faya Dayi" not only finds that depth, but revels in the hallucinatory spaces between waking and dreaming, between breath and scream and between the heat of the sun and the icy grasp of patient death. The melancholy is tempered by deferred hope and euphoric longing for a life just out of reach, but the documentary/fiction hybrid doesn't succumb to the sadness; instead, Beshir keeps reigniting the spark of life by illuminating the beauty of shadows.
"Faya Dayi" loosely translated means "giving birth to health." The title drips with the counter-intuitiveness of sincere irony because "healthiness" is not necessarily a word that comes to mind while watching the film. Shot in the rural city of Harar, Ethiopia, "Faya Dayi" spends most of its luxurious 120 minutes focused on the native plant khat, a dichotomous leaf that is simultaneously one of Ethiopia's largest cash crops and also an important stimulant for Sufi Muslim meditation rituals. The people of Harar use the drug recreationally while also using it for religious purposes, meaning that while so much of the city is reeling from the euphoria of chewing khat, many of them are using it for completely different reasons.
The film's dialogue is deeply poetic, with every sentence trying to convey a dozen meanings, much the same way Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" achieved. What's astounding about that achievement is that there are several different languages spoken in Ethiopia. Beshir speaks Amharic while most of the citizens of Harar speak Afaan Oromoo, so she was unaware of what was actually being said during the filming of the documentary and didn't have any context for the words until she could get the sound bites translated; then she translated the subtitles herself.
Not knowing the context of the images she was capturing, Beshir has made a film mostly reliant on some of the most stunning black-and-white imagery ever caught on film. It's an amazing call and response as an audience member: the visuals take your breath away and the haunting words give it back, over and over again until the viewer becomes caught in some form of somnambulistic trance and the same meditative state the documentary's subjects are hoping to achieve.
The fact that "Faya Dayi" wasn't nominated for Best International Feature and Best Documentary is shocking. The importance of the Academy Awards has lessened for me knowing that something that actually transcends the form of a motion picture isn't flashy enough to be recognized. Beshir should be given a blank check for her next project and will have a career of legend, Oscar nod or not.
There's no hyperbole here when I say that "Faya Dayi" is a transformative experience that will burn images and themes into your eyes and heart forever. I've watched it three times and there are just so many things to unpack in each frame, with some shot compositions among the most beautiful ever captured. The black-and-white photography makes the subtext live on the screen by carefully chronicling the smoky battle between light and shadow.
This film doesn't just expand the medium of movies, instead, Beshir reframes the importance of them by laying bare the soul of a culture and then asking the viewer to commit to empathy without judgement, to understanding without allowing us to enter the narrative. No white knights or saviors allowed; instead "Faya Dayi" just wants us to remember that once in the very beginning we all had the same pulse and maybe, if we're lucky, we can all find our way back again.
Dir. Jessica Beshir
Now Playing at Tin Pan Theater