This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.
In the “Meet the Artist” video for her debut feature Shayda, writer and director Noora Niasari says of the film that it is “a love letter to mothers and daughters, to culture, to the brave women and girls of Iran,” and I can think of no more apt description for this beautiful gem. Recipient of the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category, Shayda is haunting and rich. It feels more like a song than a film in the way it evokes emotion and engenders a tangible reality through carefully chosen settings and supporting characters, clear yet unforced themes, and incredible acting by its mother and daughter pair (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi as Shayda and Selina Zahednia as her daughter).
Based on Niasari’s childhood and the experiences of her own mother, the film is set in mid-1990s Australia and follows Shayda and her 6-year-old daughter, Mona, after they flee Shayda’s husband Hossein and move into a women’s shelter. Abusive, but good at hiding his abuse from family and friends in their tight-knit Iranian expatriate community, Hossein is attempting to deny Shayda the divorce she seeks and threatening to kidnap Mona and take her back to Iran, where Shayda would either be forced to stay in a violent marriage or never see her daughter again.
Despite his threats and Shayda’s wrenching recitation of his abuses and assaults for the legal record, lack of direct evidence means the courts still grant Hossein visitation while they investigate. Bringing Mona dutifully to a neutral location in a mall each week to meet with Hossein, Shayda lives in fear that her husband will either kidnap Mona during their few hours alone together or follow them back to the shelter, the location of which must remain undisclosed to protect all the women and children there.
While we don’t learn a lot about Shayda and Mona’s housemates, their constant presence and the unobtrusive kindnesses of the shelter’s manager, Joyce (Leah Purcell), should remind us that while Shayda’s story is intensely personal, her experience is not an isolated one.
These are the narrative contours of the film, but far more compelling is its rendering of Shayda and Mona’s relationship. Mother and daughter act as mirrors of each other: Shayda attempting to provide spaces of joy and light for Mona despite her ever-present worries, and Mona trying desperately to negotiate her love for her parents with the uneasiness she feels around Hossein but can’t quite understand. It’s rare to see a child actor convey such a complicated juxtaposition of emotions so perfectly, and Zahednia is stunning in this regard; she’s warm and reticent in turns, her facial expression shifting in minute yet crucial ways.
Amir-Ebrahimi, too, plays her role with complete dedication, shining with love for her child and wordlessly expressing the tension between fear and a desire for happiness and freedom.
Their story unfolds over the course of preparations for and during Persian New Year (Nowruz), a springtime celebration of renewal. And yet, Australia is in the southern hemisphere, meaning Nowruz takes place as the leaves are browning and falling, the days getting shorter and cooler. There’s a metaphor here, though it’s not overplayed, for the friction of Shayda and Mona’s attempts to adjust to their new reality, their world narrowed into the confines of the shelter where they are ostensibly safe, while they both imagine a future where the world might be open to them, allowing them space to grow.
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