A sublime work of personal vision, the debut feature by the Mexican Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir is a hypnotic documentary immersion in the world of Ethiopia’s Oromo community, a place where one commodity—khat, a euphoria-inducing plant once prized for its supposedly mystical properties—holds sway over the rituals and rhythms of everyday life. As if under the influence of the drug itself, Faya dayi unfurls as intoxicating, trance state cinema, capturing intimate moments in the existence of everyone from the harvesters of the crop to people lost in its narcotic haze to a desperate but determined younger generation searching for an escape from the region’s political strife. The director’s exquisite monochrome cinematography—each frame a masterpiece sculpted from light and shadow—and the film’s time-bending, elliptical editing create a ravishing sensory experience that hovers between consciousness and dreaming.
Jessica Beshir’s 2021 documentary Faya dayi comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from the original digital files.
Filmed entirely in high-definition and presented in black-and-white (outside of one color shot) the presentation looks just fine but features mild artifacts that appear to be baked into the original digital photography. I was genuinely impressed by the wide range in contrast and excellent blending within the grays, which all helps in rendering some of the details in the darker objects and silhouettes that pop up, but moments that call for finer blending and gradients, like shots featuring smoke or water, present noticeable banding artifacts. Black levels can vary, looking pure in some sequences and a little milky in others, while macroblocking can be a minor nuisance in some of the nighttime shots. On the other hand, white levels are balanced out nicely, never coming off too bright or blooming.
Minor issues inherent to the digital photography aside the end presentation is sharp and highly detailed, rendering the film's gorgeous visuals in a stunning manner. There is an exceptional level of detail present in just about every shot, the textures on a mud wall being assembled in one sequence sticking out in particular. Outside of those other artifacts I already mentioned (and some mild shimmering here and there) the image is otherwise clean and looks smooth in motion.
The original high-definition photography limits things a wee-bit, but on the whole Criterion does deliver a very pleasing presentation.
Criterion includes a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. Capturing the film’s subject matter in a manner that feels akin to a memory the film has a dream-like quality in its images that is further enhanced through its sound design. There are what you could call “interviews” within the film but most of the dialogue, so to speak, is offered through voice overs. These stick specifically to the front channels, but the film’s score and some background sounds are pushed cleanly to all of the speakers and it's all mixed effectively around the viewer with a nice subtle use of bass. It’s not overly aggressive but it works well to pull you into the film and place you in the center of it. The audio is always sharp and does have a wide level of range, even if it sticks to the low ends a bit more.
Disappointingly the supplements end up being incredibly sparse. Criterion does include what works out to be a select-scene commentary (listed here as an interview) featuring Beshir being questioned by poet Ladan Osman. Beshir offers up a backstory around the 10-year project and the subject matter it covers (the khat industry in Ethiopia and everything that comes with that) before talking about how she came to construct the “narrative” of the film, which tells its story more through feelings and a sense of slowed time, which I understood she based on the ritual use of the crop from her comments here. It’s not an easy film on first viewing; I confess I foolishly did go into this expecting a straight-forward documentary and the film is in no way anything remotely like that. Once I got into the groove of the film I found it worked but having Beshir’s comments here around her decisions and the mood she was creating proves beneficial.
The disc also features three short films by the director, He Who Dances on Wood (less than 6-minutes), Heroin (almost 17-minutes), and Hairat (less than 7-minutes). Although the subjects vary (respectively they’re about a man who tap dances on a wooden plank, a painter who only paints his ex-wife, and a man who has built up a relationship with hyenas that come around his village) they do all deal, in a way, with the passage of time, memories, and even perception. Heroin proves the most fascinating since it is about an artist still obsessed with a person that is no longer in his life and no longer the person he remembers, and though it’s easy to dismiss him and his actions as creepy it appears he is more than aware of the situation and is using his work to explore all of this. Through a model and photographs he builds up these little fantasy scenarios that are based on the person he remembers and (what I assume is) what he lost when she left him (unsurprisingly we learn he was controlling and that led to her leaving). All three films end up being far more straightforward than Faya dayi but have been constructed in a similar manner, mixing dreamy visuals with a dreamy score and voice-over narration. The three films offer a look at the evolution of Beshir’s style and end up feeling like a natural progression to her feature.
The disc then close with Janus’ theatrical trailer. The included insert then features an essay by programmer Yasmina Price, who further contextualizes the film and helps parse through the visuals and its style.
The material is all well and good and well worth going through, but it all still feels especially slim. Having said that, I am also at a loss as to what else could have been added.
The edition feels slim on features but the presentation, despite some limitations found in the original digital photography, is excellent.