Chanting at Sundance: Jessica Beshir on Faya Dayi

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Selome Hailu speaks with documentarian Jessica Beshir, director of Faya Dayi, which premiered as part of Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Ethiopian-Mexican director Jessica Beshir knew what the title of her film would be before she even knew what the words meant.

Faya Dayi is a poetic black and white documentary shot in the rural hilltop city of Harar, Ethiopia, where Beshir grew up. The film centers around the leaves of a native plant called khat, which are chewed for their stimulant properties, and are Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop today. From the farm to the market and beyond, Beshir uses khat as a through line to connect different stories about ancient Sufi Muslim traditions, love and tension within families, and fleeing an opressive regime. 

There are tens of different languages spoken in Ethiopia, and Beshir speaks Amharic while most of the subjects of her film speak Afaan Oromoo, making Faya Dayi the first ever film in Afaan Oromoo to play at Sundance. Beshir got vague translations of the stories her subjects told her while she was on location in Harar, but didn’t find out their exact words until much later. While putting the film together in New York, she would send selected sound bites to someone in Ethiopia who would translate Oromoo to Amharic so she could translate the English subtitles herself.

What does the phrase “faya dayi” mean and how did you land on that as a title?

You know, I didn’t find out the meaning until about a year ago. The meaning is “giving birth to wellness,” or “giving birth to health”. I had no idea. It’s a hymnal chant that [farmers in Harar] chant when they’re harvesting. It’s a moving chant that has stayed with me. I felt like, ‘Okay, whatever comes out of this film—because I don't know what it’s going to be—it’s going to be called Faya Dayi.I knew that from the get-go. Because when they’re chanting, they’re giving each other morale and energy to continue to work. It’s a question and answer.

I just kept thinking, you know, that’s how I’m talking to myself [while making the film]. Because to want to do something for over ten years and to continue with the same stamina, you have to be talking a lot with yourself. Because there’s always that doubt, you know? I mean, ‘What the hell am I doing? Am I doing something?’ Year after year after year. And so that’s the conversation that I was having with myself. Just talking to myself and saying, ‘Yes, I still believe in that.’

Over the ten year period of making this film, how were you able to build relationships with your subjects while traveling back and forth between Harar and your home in New York?

I first went [back to Ethiopia] because I wanted to reconnect. I hadn’t been in the country for a long time, but that’s all I dreamt of. It didn’t matter where I was. It’s as if I was living there, but my body’s here in New York, LA, wherever. But my heart, my soul was always there. So I thought, ’I'm going to film my grandmother, who's getting older; I'm going to film some of my friends, just for me.’ For memory’s sake.

I started to go there every year for three or four weeks, and my friend [from high school] has a café. Every single person in town comes to the cafe, including the farmers. One of the farmers supplies the mangoes for the cafe. He and I became very good friends and he’s, like, “You should come over and chill with us!” So I went to the farms for the first time. I stayed with them for a while, and I started to get to know what was going on on the ground with my own eyes and with my own ears, trying to listen.

Have you been able to share the film with anyone in Harar yet? What does your ongoing relationship with them look like?

Oh, we talk to each other, especially the young guys. Unfortunately, though, a lot of them, if not most of them, are on the run. One of them I lost trace of for a while, and then he calls me from Kenya. He's like, ”I came as a refugee! I made it to Kenya!” You know, these are people that are hunted. A lot of them are hiding. The little kid I talked to a lot, Mami, I was telling him about the premiere. He’s like, ”That's going to be my [new] birthday! And my birthday gift!” Man.

So I have a relationship with them, but unfortunately it’s only whenever we can [find a way] to get together. Because it’s also dangerous for them. They're being very brave when they come on camera. I hope to have a premier in Ethiopia, but now with all what’s happening in the country, truthfully, I don’t feel very safe. I don’t see that happening very soon, but there’s nothing I would love more than just getting together with everybody—that would be ridiculous! We’d just love that, but not right now. 

Let’s rewind a bit. Can you tell me about your relationship to film early in life?

I grew up in the time of the Cold War. We lived right next to a huge Russian camp. They used to have this open air cinema, and the only thing that separated us was a barbed wire fence. So we would go through the barbed wire, sit on the ground, and start watching all of these films. Mostly films about war with Germany. It was just ridiculous! We were watching snow for the first time, and we were watching all of this war that was next to us, but we were watching it on film. I never even imagined that it’s people who are making these films. I always thought it was documentary. So I didn’t grow up thinking that I wanted to be a filmmaker or anything like that; I always wanted to be a doctor, just like my dad, because of the necessity that we had living in war. But then we fled the country and came to live in Mexico, because my mom is Mexican. There was no war there, and so all of a sudden we were free to dream. And all of a sudden, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

First I thought I wanted to go into politics, so I applied to Berkeley. I got accepted. I went there for a year, and a year later, I thought, ’Okay, this is not for me.’ It was too cold! So I went to UCLA because I thought, ’I'm going to see if I can do film.’ And I did that. But when I finished, I didn't know anything about making films, you know? Producing. I had just watched some great films! I moved to New York, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how to start.’ I thought I wanted to go to NYU and do an MFA. But then life comes. I was married. I had a child. That idea of making films was going further and further away. 

So what I started to do is, just from memory, I started writing something about a lake. I grew up near this beautiful lake called Haramaya, so I wrote something and then I went back for the first time to be with my grandmother. When I went there, I realized if I was going to make something, I was just going to have to do it myself. I thought, ‘I’m going to teach myself how to use a camera. I'm going to teach myself how to be present when I’m there, and capture a moment in time.’ 

What was it like being your own teacher in that way? Did you gain anything you don’t think you could have gotten from an MFA program?

One of the things that I realized is that if I had someone on my back, backing me with money or anything like that, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film, because I needed to give myself time to absorb. Time to understand myself and what I want to say. Time to never give anyone any say on this—this is a personal affair. It’s like falling in love with a guy and somebody coming and telling you how you need to do it—like, no! And also to practice radical self-confidence. Allowing myself to make all the mistakes that I needed to make, and to be non-judgmental of my own process. I am my own producer. I am my own cinematographer. I am my own director. So when I’m there in the moment, I want to be able to slip into that instinct and say, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do, right here.’

What is the film that made you want to be a filmmaker? Is there one that was pivotal as a child, or when you were deciding to go to film school, or after?

The director that always stays with me is Tarkovsky. It could be Andrei Rublev, it could be Mirror, it could be Stalker—his work is like a whisper to my soul. It’s a hug to my soul every time I see those films.

Who or what excites you about the world of film right now?

Oh, I can talk to you about the filmmakers that excite me. Obviously Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s the most exciting filmmaker. Anything by Kahlil Joseph is the most exciting thing to me. Arthur Jafa, every single thing that he does is exciting to me. Khalik Allah. RaMell Ross. Those are the people that excite me. And I love Lav Diaz and every single thing he does. And then there's Lisandro Alonso.

And so many women, too! There’s Jenn Nkiru, who I love. And Claire Denis, from the moment I saw Beau Travail. In the background, there are these women from Djibouti. And I was always curious when I was watching the film—not that the [lead] characters weren’t amazing! They were like, oh my god, ridiculous! But I was recognizing myself in those background people, and I was like, ‘I wonder what she’s thinking right now, what she’s saying, what she’s feeling?’ You know? I was wondering about their lives because that’s the part that was talking to me, where I felt I was seeing myself. That was incredibly inspiring because I was like, ‘Oh man. One day, I’m going to make a film where I’m going to bring those backgrounds to the foreground.’