Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 12, 2021 8:11 pm 
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A dreamy doc about khat is perhaps better than it deserves

Faya-Dayi, a poetic and sometimes beautiful black and white film weaving documentary material about people in Ethiopia and the khat industry (and the addictive stimulant leaves' ever-present consumption) is "hypnotic" in its effect but also numbing and much less informative than it might be if it provided sociological facts and personal information. It's set ostensibly in Harar, Ethiopia, which is considered by some authorities to be where the thousand-year-old custom of khat chewing was born. The filmmaker Jessica Beshir was forced to leave Harar when very young due to political unrest. In her poetic, dreamlike film composed through visual-conscious editing and the use of live and diegetic music and a new age score to bind images together and give some moments an edge of magic, she's made a film that may have "mythical undercurrents" and suggest the spiritual lives of some of its subjects. But over and over we come back to the gangs of hopped-up men and boys stripping khat plants and arranging them in bunches in a large warehouse, bagging them, loading them on a truck to be shipped.

A Variety reviewer describes the film as a mix of "observational vérité" and "esoteric myth-building" that "suggests an in-and-out grasp on reality." Younger boys air the legend (clearly there is a lore that surrounds the plant) that heavy khat-chewers enter into their own private reality, though the Wikipedia article suggests its use is not much different from amphetamines, strong coffee, or lots of green tea. But the reviewer adds that this "seductive device" eventually palls as it "unfurls across two calculatedly low-energy hours." We meet people, though we admire their faces, only superficially, even if the film is "an immersive success, as the languid rhythms of the filmmaking mirror the woozy impact of the drug..."

What is the woozy impact of the drug? It doesn't seem one of the many that William Burroughs thought worth trying. It's usually described as chewed for hours to make dreary routine work palatable. If it is like an upper, it doubtless may leave its heavy users drained between uses. Young men sorting or arranging the khat branches are obviously speeded up on the leaf-chewing; an older, bearded long-time user, with his head scarf and thick, dog-eared Qur'an, often looks either drained or blissed-out.

The final message, not a message because nothing is spelled out, is that many dead-end lives are lived here, and youngsters are notably seen discussing whether they are going to take off on a boat presumably crossing the treacherous route to Lampedusa. No magic there. This film is cunningly edited. It may make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. But Jessica Beshir will go on to do good things.

Faya Dayi, 120 mins., debuted at Sundance. Also shown at Seattle, three prestigious documentary festivals, Nyon, Switzerland (Visions du réel), Hot Docs (Toronto), and True/False (Columbia, MI), and it was screened at home for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021 NYC and virtual).


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