Shayda (Noora Niasari, 2023), Noora Niasari’s debut feature, opens with two women and a young girl walking through the airport. The women move against the flow of passengers, looking around with desperation. ‘Tell her if he brings her here,’ one of the women says to the other, pointing out a security guard, ‘she’s to run to one of the officers in blue.’ The situation becomes clear: they are there to familiarise the young girl with the layout of the airport so she can alert someone if her father attempts to take her out of the country. Unlike the travellers around them, the airport is not a gateway to movement and freedom, but rather a symbol of entrapment. It’s a powerful opening scene: an introduction to the film’s subtle, moving portrayal of the realities of family violence.
Fresh off winning the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Shayda opened this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – a fitting choice for a film about searching for beginning and renewal. Set in the suburbs of Melbourne in 1995, the film follows a recent Iranian migrant, Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who has moved with her young daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), to a women’s shelter run by the kindly Joyce (Leah Purcell). Like many of the women and children living in the shelter, Shayda is seeking protection from a dangerous partner – in this case, her husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami), who has previously abused her.
In making Shayda, writer and director Noora Niasari drew closely from her own childhood experiences. Born in Tehran, Niasari moved to Australia as a child, where she recalls her ‘first memory of freedom’ being ‘inside an Australian women’s shelter, living alongside other women and children seeking a life without fear’.Noora Niasari, ‘Filmmaker’s Statement’, in Madman Entertainment, Shayda press kit, 2023, p. 2. This personal experience is evident in the realistic portrayal of life in the shelter: the children fight with one another over toys; personalities sometimes clash among the women. Rising above these petty issues, however, are reminders of the reason they are all there: Joyce impresses on a new arrival that she mustn’t tell anyone the location of the shelter; the sight of an unfamiliar car parked on the street outside causes the residents to gather anxiously by the window and prompts Joyce to go out and confront the driver.
This grounding in personal experience lends the film a memoir-like quality, with Niasari delicately balancing the perspectives of both mother and child. Through the eyes of six-year-old Mona, Shayda evokes the way childhood memory catches on certain special objects (a goldfish in a bowl; a beaded necklace) and heightened feelings (hiding behind a couch in fear; dancing with joy). At the same time, through its title character, the film explores the adult horrors of intimate partner violence, the injustices of the legal system and the isolation that can be inherent in moving to another country.
We learn that Hossein refuses to entertain the idea of divorce, and instead demands that Shayda go back to him. Shayda cannot return to her family in Iran, as she will be unlikely to retain custody of Mona, owing to the country’s restrictive custody laws (Iran’s civil code holds that, in cases of separation, custody is automatically granted to the father after a child turns seven years old).See ‘The Right to Divorce, One of Multiple Deprived Rights for Iranian Women’, NCRI Women’s Committee website, 26 August 2022, <https://women.ncr-iran.org/2022/08/26/right-to-divorce/>, accessed 5 October 2023. In addition to this, Shayda is unable to continue her university studies in Australia, as her scholarship has been cancelled by the Iranian authorities. Despite these circumstances, she and Mona have started to build a more peaceful life together in the shelter; but Shayda is soon devastated to learn that a court has granted Hossein the right to visit his young daughter, forcing her to once again face her abuser.
The anxiety and isolation of Shayda’s situation is conveyed through intimate, largely handheld cinematography by Sherwin Akbarzadeh. The camera follows its main characters closely, standing beside Shayda in the shelter’s small bathroom as she cuts her own hair in the mirror, and moving with her and Mona as they play and dance in their shared bedroom. All the while, the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio both conveys and transmits the title character’s anxieties: like Shayda, we wonder what lies just out of sight – what, or rather who, might be approaching from the periphery.
This tense framing is especially effective in the scene in which Shayda takes Mona to her first court-mandated visit with Hossein. She waits for him in a dim, near-empty arcade, wondering from which direction he is going to appear. Hossein finally emerges from the other end of the arcade, rolling down his sleeves as he approaches her. His character is introduced with a sense of movement, reflecting Shayda’s fear that he might always be coming after her.
The film is aligned so closely with Shayda that it’s somewhat jarring when, following this scene, the camera does not follow her, but instead switches to Hossein and Mona playing soccer together. Later, during another scheduled visit, Hossein brings Mona with him as he covertly follows Shayda into a department store. They hide a few aisles over, Mona trying on sunglasses until she realises that her father is taking photographs of her unaware mother as she shops. Given her proximity to the camera in the rest of the film, it is disturbing to see Shayda from such a distance, and from the sinister perspective of Hossein, who has until then largely occupied the periphery of the frame. Through these subtle changes in framing, Niasari and Akbarzadeh alternately arouse empathy, anxiety and tension.
The camera’s closeness and narrow aspect ratio also reflect Shayda’s isolation as a newly arrived migrant in Australia. Shayda’s Iranian identity is an important aspect of the story, with Niasari exploring how the disorientation and alienation inherent in migrating to another country is compounded by the challenges of separating from an abusive spouse. Shayda is caught between states: between Australia and Iran; between her controlling husband and her freedom as a single woman. Even within the sanctuary afforded by the shelter, Shayda is reminded that she is not always welcome. In an early scene, two of the other women announce that they are going out for the evening, and she asks hopefully whether there will be dancing. ‘Not really your kind,’ one of the women curtly responds, glancing at the Iranian music performance playing on the television in Shayda’s room, and Shayda is left behind to look after the woman’s baby.
At the same time as she is being made to feel different within Australian culture, Shayda faces judgement from within the Iranian-Australian community for her decision to divorce Hossein. In one striking scene, Joyce drives her to a Persian market. Shayda sits in the car for a moment before she collects herself and goes in, putting on sunglasses and a hat as a disguise. Inside, the shop is playing cheerful Iranian music, similar to that which Shayda danced to with her daughter earlier; but what should be a source of comfort has become a source of anxiety. Shayda grabs items quickly, fearful of the unidentified people on the other side of the aisle. The woman working behind the counter comments on Shayda’s new haircut, suggesting that she recognises her and, by extension, that she may know Hossein; Shayda hurries out of the shop.
Despite existing in this difficult in-between space, Shayda works hard to stay connected to cultural traditions, particularly in the period of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. A thirteen-day celebration of reflection and renewal, Nowruz is celebrated in large parts of Asia and the Middle East and is associated with cleaning and a fresh start. It takes place on the vernal equinox in late March – spring in the northern hemisphere, with the return of the season marking ‘the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow’.‘What Is Nowruz and How Is the Persian New Year Celebrated?’, Al Jazeera, 21 March 2023, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/21/what-is-nowruz-and-how-is-it-celebrated>, accessed 5 October 2023. Eager to share this cultural tradition with her daughter, Shayda braves the Persian market to buy supplies for their haft sin table, an arrangement of seven things that start with the letter ‘S’. For the centrepiece of the table, to represent new life, Shayda purchases a goldfish, which the delighted Mona names Simba.
Yet Shayda finds herself somewhat disoriented by preparing for Nowruz in early autumn, rather than spring. The trees do not bud with new shoots; rather, the leaves on the trees turn brown and drop away. ‘I have a strange feeling here,’ she says, looking out at the orange foliage of the deciduous trees outside. ‘Nowruz is here, and there’s no sign of spring.’ These autumnal tones form the palette of much of the film, with the earthy colours of the trees outside mirroring the brick walls of the women’s shelter and the faded 1990s interiors of the mall. Among this muted colour scheme, it is easy to empathise with Shayda’s desire for new life and renewal.
Yet perhaps the feeling of regeneration Shayda is seeking from the natural world might instead be found through other people. One night, while out dancing with friends and other women from the shelter, she is introduced to Farhad (Mojean Aria), her friend’s cousin who has just arrived from Canada, and the two quickly form a connection. This sweet, nascent relationship represents an alternative path for Shayda, one that leads away from the restriction and violence of her marriage. While Hossein largely appears in the enclosed, colourless spaces of the mall, Farhad appears in places associated with life and knowledge, such as the university library and a fire-jumping ceremony that Shayda, Mona and Joyce attend in the park – a Nowruz tradition wherein the flames ‘symbolically purge the bad experiences from the previous year’.ibid. Shayda fears retaliation from Hossein should he find out about her budding relationship with Farhad, telling Mona, ‘We need to keep our new friend a secret, okay?’
Hossein does find out, however, when he turns up unannounced to a mutual friend’s Nowruz party that Shayda and Mona are attending, and – after cornering Mona and asking her if she wants to come back to Iran with him, but not getting the answer he wants – assaults Farhad after finding him with Shayda. Shayda and Mona escape from the party to the safety of the women’s shelter. Yet the peace they find there is short-lived – they are awakened in the night by the smoke alarm. The women hurry out of the house and stand exposed on the street, watching the orange flames engulf the house. The fire appears to have been deliberately lit, suggesting a direct attack on the women’s safety and autonomy. In this way, the fire symbolises an apotheosis of gendered violence: wholly consuming, frightening and volatile.
Shayda’s experiences throughout the film are tied closely to her gender, and reflect the treatment of women in both Iran and Australia. When she recounts a traumatic experience she endured at the hands of Hossein after migrating, she recalls, ‘The police told me if they locked up my husband, I would have no way of supporting myself.’ Similarly, her own mother, worried that she will be unable to care for herself and Mona, begs her to return to Hossein and the supposed stability of the family unit, asking her, ‘How do you plan on surviving there all alone?’ It’s difficult as both a woman and a migrant to have the resources to leave an abusive partner, and to survive on one’s own. Hossein relies on Shayda’s lack of resources as a migrant and a single mother, leaning on laws and customs in Iran and Australia alike that give him continued access to Mona and keep Shayda tied to him.
While the film is set in 1995, themes of beginning and renewal in Shayda are connected to recent events in Iran – and, indeed, around the world – in the area of women’s rights. In 2022, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s ‘morality police’ led to widespread protests in Iran, and a worldwide campaign united under the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. Shayda’s lead actress, Ebrahimi, has been a prominent supporter of this movement, calling the protesters ‘extremely courageous […] They’ve understood that as long as women aren’t the sole owners of their bodies, nothing will change in [Iran].’Zar Amir Ebrahimi, quoted in Ghazal Golshiri, ‘Iranian Actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi: “In Iran, a Wall Has Cracked, but I Don’t Know How Long It Will Take to Collapse”’, Le Monde, 28 September 2022, <https://www.lemonde.fr/en/m-le-mag/article/2022/09/28/iranian-actress-zar-amir-ebrahimi-in-iran-a-wall-has-cracked-but-i-don-t-know-how-long-it-will-take-to-collapse_5998413_117.html>, accessed 6 October 2023. Similarly, Niasari has cited this ‘woman-led revolution’ as inspiration for Shayda,Noora Niasari, quoted in Jill Goldsmith, ‘Iranian Woman Directors at Sundance Who Can’t Go Home – “I Guess That’s the Price of Telling the Truth, and Telling Our Truth”’, Deadline, 21 January 2023, <https://deadline.com/2023/01/iran-women-directors-sundance-1235236024/>, accessed 6 October 2023. dedicating the film to both her mother and ‘the brave women and girls of Iran’.Noora Niasari, quoted in Aviva Dove-Viebahn, ‘Sundance 2023: Haunting Film Shayda Is a “Love Letter to the Brave Women and Girls of Iran”’, Ms., 14 February 2023, <https://msmagazine.com/2023/02/14/shayda-film-review-iran-women/>, accessed 6 October 2023. This present-day movement informs the viewing of the film, representing in real terms the renewal longed for by women like Shayda, and the hope that change may lie in future generations.
After all, it is in Mona that hints of something warmer can be seen in Shayda. Against the muted autumnal tones of the rest of the film, the bright pinks, purples and greens of Mona’s clothes stand out like the first flowers of spring poking up through the soil. It’s also seen in her love of the goldfish Simba, the symbol of new life. In Mona, then, there is hope for renewal and regeneration – and in all other little girls, who represent future generations of women who might grow up in a better world.
Even the film’s most catastrophic on-screen event, the fire in the women’s shelter, is not wholly hopeless. Fire in the film has a cleansing function: consider the little flames that Mona joyfully jumps over as part of the Nowruz festivities in the park, with their spiritual meaning of cleansing the past year’s events. And then there are the blazing autumnal trees outside, which will bud again come spring. These images suggest that destruction does not necessarily signify an ending – that it can lead, eventually, to renewal. Indeed, it is not on suffering that Shayda ultimately focuses, but on strength. Buoyed by the love between Shayda and Mona, Niasari’s film appeals to a powerful and enduring desire for regeneration – be it on an individual level or that of an entire country. The conclusion reinforces this idea: after the fire in the shelter, the film jumps forward in time to mother and daughter living together in a light-filled flat. Shayda takes Mona to visit her father, who is now in prison, says goodbye to her and waits in the seating area. The camera, in contrast to all its movement in the rest of the film, settles in place, emphasising the sound of birds outside. Shayda closes her eyes, and lets out a breath she has been holding for some time. As she breathes, the birds outside get louder and louder, insistent in their promise that spring is just around the corner.
|1||Noora Niasari, ‘Filmmaker’s Statement’, in Madman Entertainment, Shayda press kit, 2023, p. 2.|
|2||See ‘The Right to Divorce, One of Multiple Deprived Rights for Iranian Women’, NCRI Women’s Committee website, 26 August 2022, <https://women.ncr-iran.org/2022/08/26/right-to-divorce/>, accessed 5 October 2023.|
|3||‘What Is Nowruz and How Is the Persian New Year Celebrated?’, Al Jazeera, 21 March 2023, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/21/what-is-nowruz-and-how-is-it-celebrated>, accessed 5 October 2023.|
|5||Zar Amir Ebrahimi, quoted in Ghazal Golshiri, ‘Iranian Actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi: “In Iran, a Wall Has Cracked, but I Don’t Know How Long It Will Take to Collapse”’, Le Monde, 28 September 2022, <https://www.lemonde.fr/en/m-le-mag/article/2022/09/28/iranian-actress-zar-amir-ebrahimi-in-iran-a-wall-has-cracked-but-i-don-t-know-how-long-it-will-take-to-collapse_5998413_117.html>, accessed 6 October 2023.|
|6||Noora Niasari, quoted in Jill Goldsmith, ‘Iranian Woman Directors at Sundance Who Can’t Go Home – “I Guess That’s the Price of Telling the Truth, and Telling Our Truth”’, Deadline, 21 January 2023, <https://deadline.com/2023/01/iran-women-directors-sundance-1235236024/>, accessed 6 October 2023.|
|7||Noora Niasari, quoted in Aviva Dove-Viebahn, ‘Sundance 2023: Haunting Film Shayda Is a “Love Letter to the Brave Women and Girls of Iran”’, Ms., 14 February 2023, <https://msmagazine.com/2023/02/14/shayda-film-review-iran-women/>, accessed 6 October 2023.|