Meet Jessica Beshir, the Mexican-Ethiopian Director Behind the Most Poetic Short Film at Sundance

Shot in gorgeous black and white, Hairat centers on Yussuf Mume Saleh, known as the “Hyena Man of Harar.” Scored by the poetry of Elias Shagiz Adonay Tesfaye, this short film is hypnotizing. Its images of Yussuf interacting with the hyenas juxtapose danger with tenderness, while its voiceover makes it read more like a poetic vignette than the short documentary Sundance Film Festival billed it as. Hairat‘s director, Jessica Beshir who was born in Mexico City but who grew up in Harar, Ethiopia is no stranger to puzzling those who wish to categorize films and peoples by known and limiting labels. Just as Hairat refuses to be easily described as a documentary, this Brooklyn-based filmmaker defies easy categorization. As she told Remezcla on the phone from Park City, she wasn’t listed on press advisories alongside her Latin American peers perhaps due to the way her project seems so devoid of the markers many of us look for when wanting to identify something as “Latino.”

Moving effortlessly between English and Spanish, Beshir admitted that while she takes great pride in her Mexican roots (her family is now settled in Mexico City yet again), she’s drawn to Ethiopia more than anything else. It is, after all, where all of her childhood memories are set. That’s why any chance she gets, she heads back. “Every time I feel nostalgic I just go back to Harar, where I grew up. I don’t have any family there. I literally just ambulate the streets. And one of those things that gives me that sense of home is hanging out with Yussuf, who I have known since I was childhood. This was pre-TV—we were in the middle of nowhere. Even if you had a TV you had no channels. So we grew up with these sort of images; that was our entertainment.” It wasn’t so much a spectacle as much as a collective gathering around the Hyena Man and just sit there and be in your mind, trying to figure out what you were watching. It was a chance to contemplate what it means to witness such an intimate connection between man and so-called wild beasts. “I really wanted to capture that because he’s one of those last guardians of pretty much dying tradition.”

That’s precisely what we see in Hairat which unearths those memories and turns them into a dizzying short feature. Seeing Yussuf feeding the hyenas is very soothing, especially once the pitch black darkness around them threatens to engulf them altogether. But just as Beshir spent those childhood nights staring at this pseudo ritual by thinking about the larger questions of life, she infuses those simple images with beautiful poetry that speaks about loss and love and pain. Lest we think this was all pre-planned, Beshir candidly shared that the short film came together quite organically. Not only did she shoot what she needed on just one night, but one day during that trip she came across a young man who began walking alongside her in the labyrinth that is the walled city. He told her he was a poet.

“He was just telling me about his relationships and what he feels about love and his views on love. For me, everything that I was thinking about that time was the nature of love—about the love that Yussuf has for these hyenas, but also about a lot of things that were happening in my life—I was listening to this poet and it’s completely resonating with me.” That’s when it all clicked together and the idea to connect those images with these words came to be. Suddenly, seeing Yussuf feeding those hyenas, sometimes being quite afraid of being so near them, others taunting them with meat only to scare them away soon after, became a way to think about love. “Sometimes it comes to you. Sometimes it’s easy—like when he wants to kiss them. And sometimes it’s not.”

“I wanted it to feel like a poem. I wanted to distill the images to their essence. I wanted no distractions. I just wanted to focus on this man and his hyenas.”

The more she describes it, the more it makes sense why she wasn’t really thinking about slotting Hairat into a specific genre. “I wanted it to feel like a poem.” It’s why she favored the stark black and white aesthetic and the minimal soundscapes around it. “I wanted to distill the images to their essence. I wanted no distractions. I just wanted to focus on this man and his hyenas.” That it’s playing in the documentary section at Sundance is just proof, she says, of how far that genre has come if it can embrace something so poetic as this.

Her upcoming project, though, sounds slightly more in line with what you’d expect from a documentary. It’s focused on chat (also known as khat and jaad), a green leaf that people consume culturally in East Africa. What was once merely a local custom has become a huge commercial industry in Ethiopia, becoming one of the biggest cash crops that they have. Needless to say, it’s stimulant effects (achieved when chewing fresh leaves) have become the center of a regulatory debate, especially when it comes to its ability to be sold outside of the country. “I wanted to explore a little bit where do we stand with that? How do we feel about that? For a lot of people it’s amazing, having created a lot of jobs. But at the same time, just the consumption of it makes you very lethargic.” It’s gotten to the point where countries like the UK have deemed it an illegal substance as of 2014, after a protracted battle that targeted recent immigrants from East Africa. The film hopes to offer the pros and cons of khat without necessarily wanting to offer its own opinion, presenting instead the way the herb is intimately tied to its culture.

With Hairat playing at Sundance, I couldn’t let Beshir go without asking her about her experience at the snowy festival. “It’s been a bit overwhelming, but I’ve made a lot of important contacts in these types of voices. You know, I wish we could just say ‘filmmaker voices’ but unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way, so we do need very specific kind of support” Indeed, the collegiate atmosphere of the Park City fest was what she found most inspiring, especially when it came to taking advantage of the many opportunities Sundance has put in place for female as well as foreign-born filmmakers. She called the many meetings and panels set up by the festival that she’d attended as key to her enjoyment of the fest, cognizant of the way they are designed to help them succeed. “I’ve found them crucial to any growth. Because it’s all about, you know. What’s your life after this? We’re all seeking growth and this has been an amazing launchpad for that.” Needless to say, we can’t wait to see where this Mexican-Ethiopian director is headed.