Iranian Australian filmmaker Noora Niasari makes a powerful feature debut with this moving mother-daughter tale set in a women's shelter.
Sarah Ward
October 05, 2023


Whether or not Noora Niasari was ever explicitly told to write what she knew, the Iranian Australian filmmaker has taken that advice to heart. Her mother listened to the same guidance first, even if it was never spoken to her, either. The latter penned a memoir that has gone unpublished, but helped form the basis of the powerful and affecting Shayda. This account of a mum and her daughter attempting to start anew in a women's shelter doesn't entirely stick to the facts that writer/director Niasari and her mother lived through. The Sundance-premiering, Melbourne International Film Festival-opening, Oscar-contending feature — it's Australia's entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards — isn't afraid to fictionalise details in search of the best screen story. Still, the tale that's told of courage, resilience, rebuilding lives and finding a new community is deeply and patently personal. Perhaps even better, it's inescapably authentic.

Add Shayda to the list of recent features that couldn't be more moving while flickering across the screen like they're projections of a memory. Aftersun, Past Lives and now this Melbourne-shot and -based effort sport not only that sensation but also that look. None closely visually resemble any of the others, and yet each plays like a window into their directors' histories. What a glorious trend that cinema is enjoying right now: films made by helmers grappling with and sharing their own stories, all crafted by feature first-timers and each hailing from female directors as well. A fourth movie bonded by the same elements is on its way in How to Have Sex, and may more follow. Also magnificent: how so much connects Aftersun, Past Lives, How to Have Sex and Shayda in spirit and origin, and yet each is its own exceptional film.

In Shayda's case, Niasari peers back at being barely of primary-school age and making a new home. Fleeing to a women's shelter is the only option that the film's eponymous figure (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, 2022's Cannes Best Actress-winner for Holy Spider) has to get away from the abusive Hossein (Osamah Sami, Savage River), whose controlling nature is matched by that of their patriarchal culture. So, Shayda leaves with six-year-old Mona (debutant Selina Zahednia). As she waits for her divorce proceedings to go through — a complicated task under Iranian law and customs — she seeks refuge at a secret site overseen by the caring Joyce (Leah Purcell, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart). Even surrounded by kindness and filled with desperation for a better future, every iota of Shayda's decision is fraught and tense; Niasari starts the film with Mona at an airport being told what to do if she's ever there with her father, should he try to take her not only away from her mum but also back to Iran.

Exceptional French domestic thriller Custody also chronicled the difficulties faced by a woman striving to break free from a dissolving and dysfunctional marriage, including for her safety and that of her children. The setting varied, as did the cultural context. It wasn't additionally a picture about displacement, as Shayda is; however, it too rippled with anxiety and intensity that dripped from the screen. Niasari's film sees the terror and the trauma, as well as the infuriating bureaucracy that makes an already-distressing situation even more upsetting. It shreds nerves as Hossein receives unsupervised visitations with Mona, and simply as its namesake literally makes her way through the world with the fear of her husband's threatening presence always lurking over her shoulder. Again, this is a feature packed with been-there-seen-that minutiae, and made to echo from the screen with that very air.

Shayda spies hope just as clearly, though. Someone endeavouring to spark a new existence half a world away from everything they've ever known has to possess that feeling, which the movie never loses sight of. Neither does cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh (The Giants), who lenses a lived-in, closed-in but also visibly warm film — plus a fluidly shot feature, and yet one that knows how meaningful it is to sit in the moment. Accordingly, hope keeps lingering as Niasari's on-screen surrogate for her mum makes the utmost that she can of living with Joyce and fellow women needing a safe space, and as she fights for Mona, battles for independence and reclaims her agency, too. It's there as she still ensures that Farsi, Persian dance and celebrating Nowruz, or Persian New Year, remain entwined in her daughter's upbringing. Shayda isn't merely hoping for a brand-new way forward; she's doing everything that she can to be herself again, which still means cherishing her background and passing on its traditions.

Among the talented women attached to this Sundance Audience Award recipient — emerging victorious in 2023's festival's World Cinema — Dramatic competition — Cate Blanchett is the best globally known name. The Tár and The New Boy actor executive produces, lending the kind of attention that her involvement can give a debut feature, but Shayda belongs to filmmaking star-on-the-rise Niasari, plus the always-wonderful Ebrahimi and fresh discovery Zahednia. With the film arriving so closely with Aftersun, Past Lives and How to Have Sex, it might seem as if making a movie that's so ripped from the heart and soul is easy, although that's unquestionably not true. Another thing that all four features have in common: they feel effortless to watch, but also like the product of hard, meticulous, all-in work. Here's one more: they also make something so personal resonate universally. With Shayda, conveying the fact that Shayda and Mona's plight sadly isn't unique is a clear but never heartstring-tugging aim.

That Ebrahimi plays Niasari's lead so soon after winning Cannes' top acting prize is a pure stroke of lucky timing, with casting happening before that accolade. She would've been marvellous without the gong on her mantle already, of course — and marvellous she is. Quiet power shimmers in Shayda's strongest moments. Determination simmers silently even when the character is at her most fragile. Being resolute and being vulnerable aren't positioned as opposites in her devastatingly multi-layered performance. First-timer Zahednia is a find and also just as understated as Ebrahimi; their pairing as mother and daughter is a dream. Not that Shayda skimps on dialogue, but words aren't often needed thanks to their potent portrayals, including to see the world through Shayda and Mona's eyes.


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