THE STORY – An Iranian woman living in Australia, Shayda finds refuge in a women’s shelter with her frightened 6-year-old daughter, Mona. Having fled her husband, Hossein, and filed for divorce, Shayda struggles to maintain normalcy for Mona. Buoyed by the approach of Nowruz (Persian New Year), she tries to forge a fresh start with new and unfettered freedoms. But when a judge grants Hossein visitation rights, he reenters their life, stoking Shayda’s fear that he’ll attempt to take Mona back to Iran.
THE CAST – Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Leah Purcell, Jillian Nguyen, Mojean Aria, Selina Zahedina & Rina Mousavi
THE TEAM – Noora Niasari (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
A mother closely guides her young daughter through a busy Australian airport, firmly telling her that if her father ever tries to force her to get onto a plane back to his home in Iran, she is to run to the nearest person in blue. The girl nods, but her mother is worried nonetheless.
This is the chilling and sobering opening scene of Noora Niasari’s first feature, “Shayda,” a tender mother-daughter story that reveals disturbing truths about what abused women must endure protecting themselves and their families. The film is based on Niasari’s own experience as the child of an abusive marriage, a childhood in which she watched her mother try to escape from her violent husband, who was protected by the moral codes of Iran. Niasari tells her mother’s story through the eyes of Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who has taken her daughter Mona (a wonderfully expressive Selina Zahednia) and fled from her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), an Iranian finishing up his medical studies in Brisbane. Having had enough of her husband’s brutality, she has checked her family into a local women’s shelter that is run with a firm but kindly hand by Joyce (Leah Purcell), who serves as Shayda’s protector.
Though initially seen with suspicion by several residents, Shayda and Mona eventually blend in and feel a sense of security among the other women. Things quickly change, however, when a court grants Hossein unsupervised visitation privileges with Mona once a week, a ruling with which Shayda has no choice but to comply. She harbors no illusions about Hossein, who spouts the obligatory “Believe me, I’m a changed man” line before whisking Mona away for what seems like the longest afternoon of Shayda’s life. As the weeks pass and Hossein learns more about Shayda’s happy life without him, his anger and jealousy grow to the point where his physical abuse returns, prompting Shayda to fear for her daughter’s safety.
Throughout Niasari’s subtly perceptive screenplay, Shayda’s driving motivation is her need for independence to raise and protect her daughter in safety, a goal that is never far from the center of the action. Though the film wrapped production long before the recent civil outbursts in Iran on behalf of women’s rights grabbed the world’s attention, the oppression faced by women in Iran (from being told what they can wear to what they can say in public) is always in the back of our minds when we’re watching Shayda fight to make sure that, in her new life far away from Iran, she can do just that.
Despite all the outside political forces that lend unexpected layers to the film’s narrative, at its heart, “Shayda” remains most effective as a touching story between a mother and her daughter. The film’s most moving scenes, in fact, are its simplest, with the many interactions between Shadya and Mona never failing to touch our hearts. The characters were all there on the page, but it takes a special chemistry between actors to make some scenes come alive on the screen. For all her young years, Zahednia makes us believe that Amir Ebrahimi’s Shayda is someone she has known and loved all her life.
For Amir Ebrahimi, Shayda is another memorable characterization after her Cannes-winning work in last year’s “Holy Spider.” Perhaps it’s from years of being unable to speak her mind. Still, Shayda uses her eyes to express what she’s feeling throughout much of the film, and Amir Ebrahimi is masterful at using her eyes as tools to provide nuance to any scene. For “Shayda” to work as a film, we must know what the character is thinking, and the actress manages to achieve that and then some.
If Niasari brings together the various storylines that she has fashioned in a more conventional manner than the rest of the film, the climax of “Shayda” is no less powerful. In the end, we are left with the indelible image of a woman who can, at last, take a deep breath and start living life again.