Every night for more than 35 years, Yussuf Mume Saleh has ventured outside the walls of the ancient city of Harar, Ethiopia, to feed his beloved spotted hyenas. For Jessica Beshir, a filmmaker who grew up in Harar, visions of Saleh and the delicately-cultivated bond he shares with these wild—and often dangerous—animals are embedded in her childhood nostalgia. “It was like going to see a magical play,” Beshir told The Atlantic in a recent interview. “I was hypnotized by the relationship between these uncanny lovers.”
Years later, Beshir decided to track down Harar and capture Saleh’s otherworldly ritual with the predators on film. Her short documentary, Hairat, shot in haunting black and white, depicts Saleh dangling meat scraps into the darkness. Like gods from the underworld, the hyenas emerge and accept Saleh’s offerings. It’s a rarely seen communion with the natural world, captured in cinematic poetry.
“One night, on my way to film Abba Yusuf, I met a young poet, Elias Shagiz Adonay Tesfaye, who spoke to me about love and heartbreak,” Beshir said. As the filmmaker and the poet zigzagged the labyrinth of the walled city, Tesfaye began reciting his poetry. “The dichotomy of love and fear informed the film’s rhythm and black-and-white aesthetics,” Beshir said.
“My kinsmen / my kinsmen / arbitrators of love,” reads a line from Tesfaye’s poem. “I have entered the house of death / Love has made me loveless.” Onscreen, Saleh feeds a hyena with his mouth, and then blows it a kiss.
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