Shayda tells the story of our titular heroine (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), an Iranian woman who is living in Australia with her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia). She resides in a women’s shelter after having fled from Iran to hide from her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) and she tries to establish a normal life for her and her daughter. Seeing that the Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebrations are approaching, she sees that as the perfect opportunity to bring it all to home. However, life throws a spanner in the works as a judge grants Hossein visitation rights to Mona, which triggers Shayda’s fear that he’ll attempt to bring Mona back to Iran with him.
Shayda is the feature-length directorial debut from Noora Niasari. Her first film is based on her personal and harrowing childhood experiences and she shines a light on the startling lack of rights for women under the societal outlook of Iran. While this story and premise may be ripe for potential in terms of melodrama, Niasari aims for a more realistic approach in keeping the storytelling focused on the titular role and Mona. By keeping the stakes intimate and close, the drama and pathos truly shine when the film establishes Shayda’s character progression from being fearful to becoming headstrong and determined.
In the near runtime of two hours, Niasari manages to touch bases on harsh subjects like spousal abuse, sexual violence, hypocrisies in the justice system, indoctrination, fish-out-of-water stories and culture clashes. While she examines them in variable nuance, her execution imbues her story with a much-needed sense of reality that adds credence to the drama of the story. However, there are some missteps in the narrative. The climax and conclusion do feel contrived as to how the narrative all comes together and some of the bases it touches (eg. The shared camaraderie between Shayda and the fellow dwellers in the women’s shelter) could have used more development for the scenes of emotional respite feel more convincing.
Thankfully the bond between Ebrahimi and Zahednia as mother and daughter is genuine, poignant and heartbreaking. The two have their own coping mechanisms when dealing with the situation they are in that makes them vulnerable (Shayda hides in her self-imposed shell to the point that any family connection that she has can be a chance for Hossein/Iranian authorities could get to her), and the times they share together makes the pathos all the more satisfying. The decision from Niasari to make the respites from the characters (like when the characters dance) feel earned, without any sense of phoniness.
The leads also lend integrity to the narrative as they provide subtle, effective work. Ebrahimi expands on her range than she did in Holy Spider and her sense of unease and anxiety is well-portrayed while Zahednia displays remarkable maturity and emotional intelligence in the role of Mona. Sami thankfully portrays the nominal antagonist role of Hossein with palpable menace; without bordering to histrionics and overacting.
Overall, Shayda is an eye-opener on the looming patriarchal shadow on Iranian women, a touching mother-daughter tale and another lead acting showcase for Zar Amir Ebrahimi.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Shayda is playing as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking place between January 19th and 29th, 2023, both in person and online. For more information head to the official Sundance page.