A billow of smoke, and the soft sound of chanting. The deceptively gorgeous new documentary Faya Dayi begins like an invitation to meditate, seemingly a sensory bliss-out of birdlife and strange flora shot in dreamy black and white in Harar, eastern Ethiopia. The truth is more complex. The smoke arises from burning qat, the ancient psychoactive plant now ubiquitous across the region. Between the hypnotic hum of the sound design and the rapturous images, you might take it for a celebration. Again, not so fast.
The rituals of qat dominate the film, whether the cultivation and selling, or the taking (it is more often chewed) and seductive high of “merkhana”. With equal parts patience and verve, Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir traces through the mimetic haze of her film a dark web of political history.
Many of her interview subjects used to grow coffee; but qat, less thirsty and with a higher yield, has now displaced it and all other crops. In Harar, that also means overwhelming the local economy. The result is an entire community either using qat — for endless days — or trading it. The road to merkhana looks suddenly circular, and ever narrowing. Beshir lets the smoke float towards the camera and asks: would you want to inhale?
In UK cinemas from June 24