By Kidst Paulos Asrat
Writer and Artist
Khat is the main protagonist in Jessica Beshir’s film Faya Dayi that leads and guides the direction of the film. But it is a protagonist which camouflages the truth of these Harari-Oromo youth of southern Ethiopia. And Faya Dayi is now a contender for the Oscars (1), shortlisted in the “Documentary Feature” category.
Beshir hides from us, the viewers, the content and reality of her film behind the stylistic cinematic metaphor of khat’s haze, and takes us for a trip. Her film, which appears at face value to be about the devastations that khat causes these southern Ethiopian communities, is in fact a film with a political agenda that is camouflaged behind khat’s shady smoke, a smoke that hooks the film’s audience into its spell.
As Nick Taylor, an astute reviewer at The Film Experience writes (2):
…the heavy monochromatic images cloak Ethiopia in a hazy, dreamlike aura that’s foundational to the film’s tone and point of view.
Does the gorgeousness of the imagery actually serve the film, or is it too loaded down to carry its own weight? How much movie truly lies underneath all this black and silver? Well..
Beshir plays with the naivete of the average documentary film audience, who is primarily from a Western county, and who has little information on the socio-political landscape of Ethiopia.
Adiam Biare, an independent Eritrean businesswoman not affiliated with the film industry, and representing the POWer of Women film festival (POW Film Fest), asks Beshir(3):
I also noticed – and I was just curious about this – that some shots were body parts, like the hand and not the full person. Was there a thought behind that? Or was just…coincidence? Because I thought there was so much power in those…just watching the hand movements and there hearing the person talk and not seeing the whole person…
Of course that was thought of…There is a lot of power in the image, in which part, and what is it that you’re showing, and what is speaking to you at the moment. And where is that emotional response landing, at the time that I’m there shooting. So those are the body parts that were speaking to me the most when I was there…And I guess that becomes a little bit of a language of the film. A little bit of the perspective…And I was trying to understand what these different perspectives bring to the whole. If I were to shoot the whole, what is that communicating, as opposed to a part. And how that part can also speak volumes…More that the bigger pictures, per se. It was again, that “caller-response.”
And Selome Hailu, a writer from the Variety asks the all-important question (4):
“What does Faya Dayi mean?”
“You know, I didn’t find out the meaning until about a year ago.”
And Beshir continues to elaborate her discovery of the meaning of this phrase, after she had already shot her documentary –
“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 they’re chanting, they’re giving each other morale and energy to continue to work…’
“Hazy aura” and “not seeing the whole person.” A chant with no explanation. What does all this mean? What is the purpose of Faya Dayi, if we cannot clearly view the images, see the whole body – the whole person – or understand the chant?
Beshir’s aim is to introduce her own perspective, which she solidifies into an agenda.
The London based filmmaker and Third World activist Ruhi Hamid tweeted (5) an exulting couple of lines on Faya Dayi in October 2021, just as the film was released into the film festival circuit, and in this case at the London Film Festival’s (LFF):
Just seen the most beautiful and powerful film at the #LFF Faya Dayi is an intimate observation of an Ethiopian Muslim community lovingly told by its Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir. Obs doc at its best. #Ethiopia#harrar#observational#Documentary:
I sent an email to Hamid:
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 [Oromigna] to Amharic so she could translate the English subtitles herself [Source: Chanting at Sundance: Jessica Beshir on Faya Dayi].”
Isn’t one of the tenets of “anthropological” [i.e. Obs doc] filmmaking to know the culture? Beshir spent ten years making this film.
I spent two years in Mexico to perform rural health research. Within six months I was close to fluent in Spanish. By the end of my two years, people mistook me for a Mexican.
Hamid never replied. But she never followed up on this “most beautiful and powerful film” in further posts.
Other accolades and praises followed, with but a few cutting through the heavy smoke. The haze of Faya Dayi seems to have successfully covered the issues and agendas, intoxicating the film audience.
It is difficult to keep up with the times, and with the global times. And infinitely more difficult to understand all the nuances, back stories, and other stories to thread together the truth of the information we receive in our Brave New World.
Beshir was interviewed on Faya Dayi by a group that has a podcast platform called Free Oromia. The interview is recorded on episode 41 at their podcast (6). The group posted a tweet (7), which the elusive Beshir carefully managed through links, where she “liked” this post with both her @fayadayi (8) and @jessybeshir (9) twitter accounts, but retweets it only with her @fayadayi account, making it more difficult to pin down injurious associations [see links at the bottom of the tweet].
We’re so excited to announce our latest episode where we had the chance to discuss @FAYADAYI with the incredible @jessybeshir! #FayaDayi
This group, whose twitter location sign is set up as “Liberated Oromia,” is an Oromo secessionist organization, for the Oromo region to seceed from the Greater Ethiopia.
The Free Oromia podcast page links to the group’s Facebook (10), which then takes us to its website (11).
The group clarifies its Free Oromia platform in the main page of its website:
Welcome to Free Oromia
Envisioning an independent and sovereign Oromia
And links to their proclamation on: “Why we must free Oromia” where
…freedom in the form of independence and sovereignty is a conversation that must be normalized (12)
Their Facebook page is explicit and clear about “Why we must free Oromia”:
Welcome to Free Oromia. We envision an independent and sovereign Oromia in which the people of the nation determine its future.
Another, twitter-active secessionist, Marartuu Marartuu (13), posts on Faya Dayi, with a screen shot from the film. “All of this because we are #Oromo. Nothing new,” and “…our struggle continues.” This latter is a subtitle from the film (14). Marartuu links to the website olafightsforme.com in her introductory post.
The OLA (in the website’s name “olafightsforme.com) is the Oromo Liberation Army (15).
A November 8, 2021 article at Africa Report defines the OLA as (16):
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), is an ethnic Oromo armed group fighting the Ethiopian government alongside Tigrayan rebels. They (OLA) are based in Oromia, the largest region in the Ethiopia that encloses Addis Ababa.
It’s leader, Jaal Marroo, whose name the Free Oromiya podcast most likely uses as a pseudonym, says this, from a November 11, 2021 article in Africa Report (17):
Jaal Marroo, the Ethiopian military leader in charge of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), has warned Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that his rebels are inching closer to victory, as the conflict in Ethiopia continues to escalate.
“What I am sure [of] is that it is going to end very soon. We are preparing to push for another launch, and for another attack. The government is just trying to buy time, and they are trying to instigate [a] civil war in this country, so they are calling for the nation to fight,” Marroo said in an interview with AFP on Sunday 7 November.
Beshir (in the back) with the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association
At a time of unprecedented reconciliation, when the Prime Minister of Ethiopia is a half-Oromo with a Muslim father (18), and who was re-elected through a nation-wide, transparent, world-viewed campaign, Jessica Beshir remains bitter and vindictive.
If Beshir is to count her gripes, then she should include a myriad of other ethnic groups, like the Tigray (19) from the north, who speak Tigrigna at home, but communicate in the official language of Amharic in their day-to-day interactions.
One important piece of information which Beshir rarely talks about is her Mexican mother (20). I wonder if this duality, Mexican and Ethiopian, caused her to go full-on with her Oromo “identity,” in order to establish for her self a psychological comfort of belonging “somewhere.”
Her film’s illusive, haze-filled atmosphere is a metaphor for her psyche, where truth and concrete images are camouflaged behind all-encompassing smoke.
On a practical level, something which Beshir never discusses, if she were to be of any help to these Oromo youth, on whose backs she made this film, her obligation is to provide them with educational and drug treatment centers: no more flickers on a cinema screen, but real, on the ground, centers of rehabilitation.
PM Abiy has been doing this for the past couple of years: helping the Oromo (21).
If Beshir were really up to it, and not in her mental cinematic mood, which apparently isn’t going away any time soon, she would contact these local Oromo centers, and why not, PM Abiy himself, to go ahead with putting her money where her mouth is.
Instead, Beshir lives in her smart Brooklyn apartment, plotting her next film against Ethiopia, and her false, distant, allegiance to the Oromo of Ethiopia.
Faya Dayi is shortlisted in the 94th Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Documentary Feature category, where the winner will be revealed in the March 2022 Oscars. Oscar nomination (or win) in an obscure category as Documentary Film will hardly raise the profile of Faya Dayi, which has essentially become a “film festival circuit” film, watched by loyal, almost cultish, followers. The audiences that watches it, and gives it the accolades I described above, will hardly put a dent in the financial gains, and general recognition, of the film, nor of Beshir.
Raell Ross, a black American documentary filmmaker best describes his life after his Oscar win, which he admits didn’t advance his profile much (22):
“There were people from several major companies that bought all these other films, who would tell me that they liked ‘Hale,’ but they didn’t know what to do with it,” Ross said. “The thing about my film is that it’s not so easily log-lined and it’s impossible to know what it is until you see it, but I still obviously want as many people to see it as possible.”
New York-based The Cinema Guild eventually acquired the film, giving it a limited theatrical run last fall. It opened to universal critical acclaim, and the documentary community mobilized around Ross’ achievement, which culminated in its Oscar nomination. But Ross said that outcome has had a negligible effect on him.
“It doesn’t really mean anything personally to me, and I don’t think about it unless someone mentions it,” he said. “Since then, I’ve had several inquiries from people about collaborating on film projects, but nothing has really come out of any conversations.” He added that the limited income potential of documentaries, his interests as a filmmaker, and his experimental style were all deterrents from the prospects of landing some major gig.
Perhaps Ross invested too much in politics, and less in practicalities.
Beshir’s film will probably receive the same fate. But, its recognition by the Oscars will set the stage for truth telling. When ordinary Ethiopians begin to see the film, or at least hear of its Oscar line-up, then they will begin to ask questions, and demand answers. Is Beshir really schilling for Ethiopia, or is she simply an anomaly, a Mexican-American-Oromo? Fringe film agencies and out-of-view cinema theaters can no longer hide behind their lazy ignorance, nor their blind support of a film with a clear political agenda. And serious artists, who have spent years studying contemporary film, will analyze it without the status quo breathing down their backs. I am such a critic.
1. 94th Oscars Shortlist. https://www.oscars.org/oscars/94th-oscars-shortlists
2. Taylor, Nick. (2021, November 24) Gotham Nominees: Faya Dayi. The Film Experience. http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2021/11/24/gotham-nominees-faya-dayi.html
3. POW Film Fest. (September 1, 2021) Jessica Beshir Talks About her Film Faya Dayi. http://fb.watch/a3ShJukahe
4. Hailu, Selome. ((2021, February 12) Chanting at Sundance: Jessica Beshir on Faya Dayi Letterboxed. https://letterboxd.com/festiville/story/chanting-at-sundance-jessica-beshir-on-faya/
5. Ruhi Hamid [@RuhiHamid]. (2021, October 10). Just seen the most beautiful and powerful film at the #LFF Faya Dayi is an intimate observation of an Ethiopian Muslim community. Twitter. https://twitter.com/RuhiHamid/status/1447257423052423171
6. Maroo, J., & Aangoo, J. (Hosts). (2021, September 16). Faya Dayi. [Audio Podcast episode]. https://freeoromia.buzzsprout.com/1447450/9207747-ep-41-faya-dayi
7. Free Oromia Podcast [@TeamFreeOromia]. (2021, September 16). We’re so excited to announce our latest episode where we had the chance to discuss @FAYADAYI with the incredible @jessybeshir! Twitter. https://mobile.twitter.com/TeamFreeOromia/status/1438659239094935555
8. Faya Dayi [@fayadayi] https://mobile.twitter.com/FayaDayi
9. Jessica Beshir [@jessybeshir] https://twitter.com/jessybeshir
10. Free Oromia. (n.d.) Home [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved December 23, 2021 from https://www.facebook.com/TeamFreeOromia/
11. Free Oromia. https://www.freeoromia.org/
12. Free Oromia. Why We Must Free Oromia. https://www.freeoromia.org/why
13 Marartuu [@misskitila]. (2021, January 30) “All of this because we are #Oromo. Nothing new.” https://twitter.com/misskitila/status/1355633795790155778
14. Cinematheque Trailers (2021, August 25). Faya Dayi (2021) – Documentary [Trailer]. https://youtu.be/fPBrV9V1ylw
15. OLA Fights for Me. https://olafightsforme.com/
16. Africa Report. (2021, November 8) Redaction – African News. Ethiopia: Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the Other Group Fighting Federal Forces. https://www.africanews.com/2021/11/08/ethiopia-oromo-liberation-army-ola-the-other-group-fighting-federal-forces//
17. Hanspal, Jaysim. (2021, November 11). Ethiopia: Who is Jaal Maroo, the Military Leader in Charge of the OLA? https://www.theafricareport.com/144673/ethiopia-who-is-jaal-marroo-the-military-leader-in-charge-of-the-ola/
18. Military Wiki. Abiy Ahmed. https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Abiy_Ahmed
19. Britannica. Tigrinya Language. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tigrinya-language
20. Jardin de Ninos & Primaria. Quines Somos. https://www.serradell.edu.mx/about
21. Abiy Ahmed Ali [@AbiyAhmedAli]. (2021, March 13). Summer wheat cluster farming in Heben Arsi woreda of Oromia region. https://twitter.com/abiyahmedali/status/1370703479296102402
22. Obesen, Tambay. (2019, April 4). RaMell Ross’ Oscar Nomination Hasn’t Stopped His Experimental Career Plans. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/04/ramell-ross-hale-county-this-morning-this-evening-interview-1202055006/
Faya Dayi: Critique of Jessica Beshir’s Documentary Film
Kidst Paulos Asrat wirtes on her blog Art and Commentary by Kidist Paulos Asrat
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