9 October 2021, BFI London Film Festival
I am walking in Soho, to meet Jessica Beshir at The Mercer Street Hotel, a bit worried. Watching the film FAYA DAYI at dawn today, I didn’t have the time to clear up my mind about the questions that I am going to ask. So I am worried that Jessica Beshir would think that I am wasting her time. I am also worried about having an interview in English for the first time in my life. I have so many doubts and fears. But I was to figure out very soon that she is a very kind-hearted and friendly person. And also noticing that we have several things in common, such as experiencing being an immigrant, helped me to feel a bit more comfortable with her. So I started asking…
Yusuf Emre Yalçın I’ve seen your film yesterday and really loved it. It is so fresh for me so I didn’t have enough time to digest it. So please forgive me if my questions are too abstract.
I have several immigration related questions about the film. Because I am also an immigrant here so maybe that’s why I feel really connected to the film. But before those questions, I would like to know a bit more about you. For instance, where were you born, when did you leave your homeland?
Jessica Beshir I was born in Mexico. My mother is from Mexico City and my father is from Ethiopia. My father came to study Medicine in Mexico and he became a surgeon and I was born there. That’s when the change of regime happened in Ethiopia. The country was being invaded in a way from the north to the south. The government made a huge call for people in the diasporas to come back and help the country whichever way they could. And my father, he came back home and said that — my mother told me, I was just so little — he had to go back because he was needed there. The country was being invaded, there was a war with Somalia and he had to go back and help. He was assigned to be the doctor in Harar because Harar had the big military base. It is a militarily strategic point. There was a Russian military base. That’s where all the wounded soldiers were coming from Somalia to Harar because it is very close. So he left and I think nine months later we joined him. Because he called my mother, he said he was going to come back but then once he realised what was happening there, he said, “well, this will be going for a long time, so it is better if you come”. So that’s it, that’s where I grow up.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın How long did you live there?
Jessica Beshir I lived there for about 13 years.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın And then?
Jessica Beshir And then, after growing up there, we left again because of political reasons. My father had served as a surgeon throughout the war but he was not necessarily supporting the regime and what the regime was doing. So at some point he had the opportunity to leave and since it was a communist regime and a very brutal regime at the time, you couldn’t even think of leaving or even uttering a word about going anywhere. But he had an opportunity to leave as a scholarship holder to do a specialisation in Mexico and he took that opportunity to take his family out. We were told that we were leaving in 72 hours. My mom came to my school and she said, you can go and say goodbye to your friends and that’s it. For me, it always remains such a violence in a way, but that is what is happening all around the world, you know, the way how we are expelled from our countries, I am always indignant because of this. Because a lot of it had to do with the cold war. And what is this cold war? What do we have to do with this cold war? It was these western and eastern forces coming and playing out their games in African lands. And in the middle, we are the ones who had to be, you know… That is why I am still indignant even today. Because that’s precisely what is still happening around the world. And then they want to call us refugees, immigrants. That’s why I am indignant. That was very strong for me as I was making the film. Because it was coming back to the same subject which was my life that was taken away. The process of this film was sort of like releasing this problem from my own soul, you know what I mean? And at the same time it was about looking at how history is repeating itself today, and looking at how the little kids have to deal with those same problems. Mohammed for instance, I met him when he was 10, now he is 16. But he was dealing with these problems since he was 13. And he grew up listening to these things. Because this is something that everyone has already sort of negotiated in their minds. How would you go? What are your options? Everyone has already discussed that with their family members, with their friends… Why do we have to live in a place where we need to discuss how to leave? Why? Does it make any sense? Those were my indignations, those were my questions.
What does it feel like to be an immigrant?
I just feel like a part of you dies right away. It is like an immediate death.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Actually that makes perfect sense to me. Yes, maybe not because of a life or death situation but because I had been searching for a better life or maybe because Turkey’s political and economic situation is really bad right now, I also left my country and came to the United Kingdom. But as it was discussed in the film, elders say that living in a foreign country is not the same thing as living in your own country. They say it is like living with a step mother.
So, I really wondered whether you felt insecure out of Ethiopia? Because going somewhere politically safe might make you feel safe in a way but on the other hand, you leave your roots, your own language… This could cause people to disconnect with the environment they live in or lose their meaning of life in a way. Well, what did you feel when you left Ethiopia?
Jessica Beshir I just feel like a part of you dies right away. It is like an immediate death. It is like leaving your soul somewhere else. We immigrate to survive. Surviving in a way and we try to learn the rules of the game of the new place. We strive to understand the new rules, getting along with them and with our new place. I speak several languages and I notice the difference in my personality the moment I speak a different language. And for me not speaking my own language, coming to a whole new place, again, this means the person that I know is gone. Do you see what I mean?
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Yes, exactly.
Jessica Beshir Yes, you know exactly what I mean. Unfortunately this is the common reality for a lot of us. For a lot of us. Look at how people are leaving. Why do we have to leave? That’s the thing. Why are we leaving? So again, there is for me some certain loop in life, in time. Certain way of history repeating itself and that is kind of like a circle. And it is almost like, you know, I see that parallel a lot of it, even in the harvest of Khat. The harvest and all of that process that you see in the film, happens within the 24 hours a day, everyday. And the changing politics everyday…
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Also can we say that you used filmmaking as a tool to connect yourself to life again? Because in the film there is this myth. There are three characters there, one was praying to god because of his fear, but the one, I think Kadir who finds the water, gets transformed into the daylight.
Jessica Beshir Elias found the muddy water and he became dark, and nighttime. Khedir was very selfless, he was praying as he was searching for the Maoul Hayat—the water of eternal life—, “help me find this water for Azurkherlaini and for all the people in the world”. Elias was praying, “God, help me find this water for Azurkherlaini and for myself”. And Azurkherlaini was so blinded by fear that he only prayed for himself. And when he got there he found god.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın When we listen to the voice over telling about this myth, we see a young boy playing with a film print. So I thought maybe this is daylight and that he found the water of the eternal light. And since we saw a film print there, I felt there might be a connection with your personal story because honestly when I feel lost, I start filming something to feel a connection again. Could we say that when we find a way to create or produce in life, it means that we found eternal life? I don’t know how to wrap this up but do you know what I mean?
“To me making this film was all about healing.”
Jessica Beshir When I first heard this myth, I was sitting with the imam. They were making duas, you know, because that’s their ritual. And I heard about Azurkherlaini, Elias, Khedir, I had heard it before as well, I don’t know how many times but I had never paid attention. But that day, I asked, who are these people? When I heard the story so many things happened inside of me because I was definitely thinking again there are so many parallels in a way. I thought where is this going? I thought where is this going? First what really touched me was the fear and finding Maoul Hayat was a way to remedy this fear. Because this fear is an incredible disease of the soul. Maybe this film was my Maoul Hayat. The water of eternal life that I use to remedy this fear. And that really spoke to me in a lot of ways about cinema, and about light and about darkness and it formed so much about this film. Also I realised it seemed like everybody knows who Azurkherlaini is, you know. But they all had their own versions, like “did he find the water? No, that was Elias. Oh okay”. But everybody knows who Azurkanini is and I was like oh my god, this is so beautiful because I felt like this needs to sort of guide the film in a way because it is the thing that exists in us. It is our own mythologies, our own fantasies, these things that makes us, these stories that makes us. And they are timeless, you can’t tell when they started. And they are never gonna end. And I really felt like that definitely had a sort of parallel to cinema, that’s why yes, as u said, it had to be there. And that cinema you see in the film which is where I watched a bunch of Bollywood movies while I was growing up. It talked to me a lot about cinema, but also the journey of this film made me think about healing, whatever that is that you heal. To me making this film was all about healing. Nobody needs to see my film in Ethiopia, they don’t need me, on the contrary, I need them to heal myself. They gave me this gift. So yes, it spoke to me on many levels in this sense, cinema as healing. And I am happy that you caught on that.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın By the way, I am really glad that you made the film black and white. When I saw the film I felt like, “Well, this film could be from a hundred years ago or it could be from yesterday”. I really like that, it gave me the feeling of timelessness you were mentioning about. I have so many questions but I can see that my time is almost up.
Jessica Beshir No, but ask me whatever questions you have. We’ll do it, I’ll make it short.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Okay, thank you. I was wondering, are there any fictional characters in the film?
Jessica Beshir All of them were real characters that were in their own lives. The only person that was sort of like a stand-in, let’s just say, was Mohammed’s father. Mohammed’s father is in real life a policeman. So, he has a tough relationship with him. So that was not going to be possible for us to bring him. And all he is doing is chewing Khat. But that’s what a lot of people do every single day anyways. So that was the only fictional character. But for the most part everyone was just living their own lives. And whatever they said in the film, those were what they really wanted to say. I have to say that two languages that are mainly prominent in this film are Oromo and Harari and I speak neither. I speak Amharic because I grew up in a school where the official language is Amharic in Harari but it is a place where there are more than 80 ethnic groups and language groups. In that part of the country in Harar people are multilingual. They speak Oromo, Harari, Amharic and Somali. I speak none except Amharic. So a lot of what they were saying at the time I didn’t know, I was just there. After filming I was like, “what were you saying?”, and they were like, “oh you know, I said this and that ”, and I was like, “Oh, okay”. Then when I got the translation, I realised that they were the things that they wanted to give, it’s like a gift you know.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Do you think when you were filming there, since you knew most of the young people were looking for a way out for a better life maybe, did they expect anything from this film for their advantage? I don’t mean money wise but somehow did they think this film would help their search for a way of escaping from Ethiopia?
Jessica Beshir I just tell you something, I don’t think any of them care. Nobody cares. Even Mohammed, when I told him this film will be at Sundance, which is such a big festival, he was like, “Oh Jes, you are telling me this news, it is like my birthday”. But I don’t think even Mohammed understands what’s happening with this film, what I was trying to explain. There is no one that kind of took part in the film because of thinking, “oh I am going to be known as an actor”. I think people were giving me their time because they saw I was there again and again for many years. People got to know me. When I was walking around they would say, “Oh Jes, you are back, when are you gonna finish this film man?”. Everybody knew that this crazy Jes is coming with a camera and doing something and they were thinking like god knows when that thing is gonna be over. I don’t think there is any knowledge or interest in what was gonna happen. They were just curious.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Have they seen the film by the way?
Jessica Beshir No, we haven’t shown it in Ethiopia yet. We are looking for the right opportunity. The country right now is going through a lot, it is a very delicate space right now. So I don’t know, hopefully soon I would love to show it in that cinema that I mentioned. That would be so amazing for us.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın And wow, you did the cinematography yourself. This question is coming from my filmmaker side. Which camera did you use?
Jessica Beshir 5D II.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın What? Canon 5D Mark II?
Jessica Beshir Yeah, DSLR.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın Oh my god! You are really so talented. I couldn’t have reached the same cinematography with that camera. Honestly I have got a better camera but the footage I have filmed is not as good as yours.
Jessica Beshir Oh, thank you. Well, you know what? That was the only one I could afford. When I started going back to Ethiopia I just had like a little camcorder, you know, to record my grandmother. Then I said oh my god, I probably need a real camera. For me the real camera that I would afford was a second hand 5D Mark II. Then I got a few lenses. All second hand. I got a Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4 and an adapter for it. It was my fastest lens. And that helped me a lot. Especially about all of the low light shootings, that one was the only one I could use. So it forced me to, you know, having that little thing really eased my mind. Because that limitation forced me to find a solution, find my own solutions. And finding these solutions have taught me a lot. I had to learn in that way. So that limitation forced me to really focus on what I could do with that tiny little thing. And then later on, in 2018, I was able to, a friend of mine sold me his old Canon C200 Mark I. That gave me beautiful white tones. And at some point I also upgraded my 5D 2 to 5D 4, because I needed it for slow motion. So yeah, those were my cameras and truly a lot of the footage is from 2010, from when I was shooting the farms and all of that. I was always thinking like, “oh I need to show this, so that I could find a cinematographer, so that I could find a producer”, you know. And then at some point I looked back and realised, I was the cinematographer, I was doing it. So without really thinking too much about it, I became the cinematographer. And that’s what a lot of people do. I was inspired by seeing so many people having a good result by doing that. So yes, why not? I am doing it. I don’t have money but I have the community who is supporting me, that’s it. That’s what I have.
Yusuf Emre Yalçın So inspiring! I know this conversation would be endless, I could talk until morning but I am over my time. Thank you for your time!
Jessica Beshir Thank you.