SHAYDA (Sundance FF2023) – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Iranian-Australian director Noora Niasari’s potent and essential debut is based on her childhood experiences. As a child Noora was living in a women’s shelter after her Iranian mother had to flee her abusive father. Noora asked her mother to write an autobiography of her experiences dealing with the constant fear of her retributive husband, exile from the Persian community in Australia, and the determination to raise her daughter in as stable an environment as possible. The memoire became Niasari’s basis of Shayda.

Shadya featuring a tour-de-force performance by already award-winning actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider) begins with Shayda and Joyce (yet another award-winning actor, Leah Purcell) taking Shayda’s daughter, Mona (newcomer Selina Zahednia) through Brisbane airport in 1995 trying to teach her how to reach out to officials in case her father Houssein (Osamah Sami) attempts to abduct her and take her back to Iran without Shayda. Mona is confused and blames herself for wanting to see her Iranian family. She’s also afraid.

Fear permeates Shayda and Mona’s life. Not only are they hiding from Houssein, they’re also hiding from members of the Iranian community in Brisbane – a community so small that it is possible that someone will leak Shayda’s whereabouts to her estranged husband. In trying to get her custody documents together for court, Shayda encounters a translator who knows who she is and questions whether she should be allowed to divorce.

Fear also permeates the lives of the other women who live in the shelter. Vi (Jillian Nguyen) stands overlooking a window in tears as an unknown car sits across the road from the house. No-one knows whose car it is, the fact it could belong to any of the abusive ex-partners of the women living in the shelter is a source of extreme anxiety. Joyce chases the car off, but Joyce can’t be in the house 24/7. The women have the only barest of protection.

Shayda was once a graduate student at a university in Brisbane, the same university Houssein is receiving his doctorate from. The Iranian state cancelled her scholarship, and when Houssein’s sustained abuse of Shayda reached a point of rape, the police did little because they believed Shayda would not be able to survive in Australia without Houssein’s support. That belief is one shared by Houssein who used Shayda’s interstitial status as a way to control her and block her petition for divorce. It’s also one that is shared by Shayda’s own mother who says, “At least he will be a doctor, he can look after you.”

Shayda is readying for Norwuz, which is the Iranian New Year. It’s essential to her that she keeps her traditions alive with Mona. Far from rejecting Iran, Shayda longs for Tehran but she knows she will never be safe or free if she returns. Her in-laws have already tried to take Mona from her. When Houssein is given unsupervised visits with Mona, Shayda’s worst nightmares begin to take shape. At any moment the man could take Mona away forever.

As much as Shayda is about the extreme pressures faced by not only Shayda, but a community of abused women, it is also about their perseverance and the community they form to express themselves and live with some level of joy and normalcy. Shayda’s life in the safe-house isn’t ideal as she experiences more than a little racism, but she works hard to make it a home for Mona and does all she can to minimise the impact of the dread she is feeling being passed on to her daughter.

Shayda’s more liberated university friend Elly (Rina Mousavi) reminds her that somehow she has to find a way to have a life that isn’t still dictated by the threat of Houssein. This sentiment is echoed by Vi. In a moment of elation the women attend a nightclub where they dance to the song ‘Everybody’s Free’ – that elation soon turns to distress as Shayda imagines that she sees Houssein in the crowd. A budding romance between Shayda and Elly’s Canadian-Iranian cousin, Farhad (Mojean Aria) offers her a small sliver of light, but when Houssein becomes aware of it and begins to stalk her in earnest, the threat of violence is no longer just a threat but becomes once again a palpable reality.

The loving and honest manner in which Niasari films her memories is a tribute to the strength of the women who have had to leave violent situations and do their best to sustain some sense of normalcy for their children. Mona’s terror is all too real but her love for Shayda is unwavering even when she is acting up like any young child would do in a situation she doesn’t fully comprehend. Reality and respect proliferate Niasari’s work. Although it is about herself and her mother, it is also about women like Joyce who tirelessly work to support other women. It is about the British mother Lara (Eve Morey) who is afraid that her abducted son may not love her once he is found. It is about the exhausted Australian woman Cathy (Bev Killick), who has spent so long hiding from abuse that she has taken to drinking heavily to numb herself.

Shayda and Mona find a home in Australia but not after suffering from the incompetence of the police, the court system, and the sheer lack of available resources for women and children fleeing violence. Despite Niasari’s searing social critique of the patriarchal forces that oppress women in not only inherently conservative regimes like Iran but also liberal counties such Australia, what the director is fundamentally representing is the spirit of the women who survive personal and institutional abuse. The film is dedicated “To my mother and the brave women of Iran.” A dedication that is timely as Iranian women are staging a grass roots revolution for their freedom.

Shayda received the Audience Award for World Cinema: Dramatic at Sundance Film Festival 2023.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.