Film Review

Wild hyena

Hairat, edited by Charlie Hoxie ’05; music by Matty McFeely ’05 and Chris Hahm ’07 

Through shadowy black-and-white footage, Hairat shows a man venturing out at night to find wild hyenas. Kneeling down, he whistles and speaks to the predators as they tentatively approach. He makes kissing noises and strokes their spotted fur. He uses a stick to hold out strips of camel meat, which the hyenas grab with their teeth. The voiceover is a different man, reciting poetry in Amharic; English subtitles reveal the poem to be about love, kinship and healing. The only other sounds are crickets, footsteps and expansive synthesizer tones.  

Hairat poster
Produced and directed by Jessica Beshir, Hairat focuses on Yussuf Mume Saleh, the “Hyena Man of Harar,” pairing his nightly ritual with the words of Elias Shagiz Adonay Tesfaye, a poet also from the eastern Ethiopian city. The 6-minute documentary involved no fewer than three Amherst alumni: Charlie Hoxie ’05 edited Beshir’s footage, then asked friends Matty McFeely ’05 and Chris Hahm ’07 to compose the score. 

McFeely and Hahm, who both have backgrounds in corporate law, have been making music together seriously for two years, under the name Language Games, but had never scored a film before Hairat. For McFeely, it was an “opportunity to experiment with a different kind of sound than we had been playing until then: the soundscape style, as opposed to something more traditionally pop or rock.”

“We try to take electronic instruments and synthesizers,” says Hahm, “and make them sound organic and natural. Then also the reverse: take more acoustic instruments and organic sounds and try to make them sound more digital or computerized or repetitive.” 

Manuel Betancourt of called Hairat “the most poetic short film at Sundance” when it was screened at the festival in January. 

Hoxie majored in geology at Amherst but “took a film production class my senior year and realized that was a lot more fun,” he says. After graduating, he moved to New York to pursue his new passion, eventually earning a master’s degree in news and documentary production from NYU. He spent time in Ethiopia in 2009, and began working with Beshir after they met through a mutual friend. 

Today, Hoxie makes documentary-style content for an organization called BRIC, which presents free cultural programming in Brooklyn. He, Hahm and McFeely collaborated again, earlier this year, on Surf the Catastrophe, a film about music publicist and author Howard Bloom.

In a departure from the journalistic style in which he was trained, working on Hairat helped Hoxie practice “stirring emotion in the viewer, as opposed to conveying information.” He focused on “how the imagery worked with the music and natural sounds, letting shots breathe much longer than I might typically do in a more conventional approach, [and] making sure every shot flowed naturally into the next by using sound cues or movement within the frame.”

He’s used this “bolder approach” in subsequent projects, he says. Imagery and gentle music, he learned through his work on Hairat, can create a canvas in viewers’ minds, through which they can tell their own stories about what is happening in a scene. 

Three Amherst alumni working on a documentary
Charlie Hoxie ’05, Matty McFeely ’05, and Chris Hahm were involved in the making of this documentary.