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‘Shayda’ Review: Zar Amir Ebrahimi Shines in Deeply Felt Iranian-Australian Drama

Sundance: Noora Niasari’s highly personal debut tells a timely tale of domestic abuse and women’s struggle for autonomy.




The actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s eyes are an arresting contradiction. In “Shayda,” dark circles hang heavy below them, contributing to her world-weary, anxious gaze. But if you look deeper into her uneasy stare and almost translucently hazel irises, there lurks a bit of light, and a sense of hope that hasn’t been completely stamped out.

In Noora Niasari’s debut feature, Ebrahimi is cast as the eponymous Shayda, an Iranian woman living in Australia in 1995, trying to break free of her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), who’s finishing his medical studies in Brisbane. Her immense exhaustion is visible from the film’s first scene, in which she instructs her six-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) what to do if Hossein tries to kidnap her. While her strained expression betrays her anguish, she resists the urge to give in to despair as she speaks softly to her daughter, knowing she has to keep up her strength for both of their safety. 

Ebrahimi brings this subtle mix of emotions to “Shayda,” which is modeled after Niasari’s own upbringing and her mother’s attempt to escape her own abusive husband, along with the strict moral codes of Iranian culture. When the story begins, Shayda and Mona have already relocated to a women’s shelter in a secret location, where she’s attempting to build a case for divorce with the help of the warm and pragmatic shelter director Joyce (Leah Purcell). While they’re far from Iran, the country’s attitudes toward women’s autonomy follow her in the form of criticisms from her small Persian circle in Brisbane and phone calls from her mother back home begging her to give her husband Hossein a second chance. 

Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for “Holy Spider,” is perfectly cast as Shayda. The actress fled from Iran in 2008, facing prison time after a tape circulated showing her having sex outside of wedlock, and today uses her platform to speak out about the treatment of women in her home country. “Shayda” was made before the Iranian antigovernment protests began last fall, and the film’s message only rings more true today.

Shayda is unable to obtain a divorce from Hossein in Iran without losing custody of Mona. Even in Australia, Hossein is granted the right to visit Mona unsupervised, striking fear into Shayda that he may attempt to abduct her. It’s during these visits that Hossein slowly begins to work his way back into Shayda’s psyche, questioning who she’s been socializing with or how she’s dressed during their brief but tense interactions. 

While Shayda’s feelings of hatred and fear toward Hossein are unambiguous, her emotions regarding her culture are more complicated. Living abroad, she tries to remain rooted in Iranian food, music, and traditions, even as she distances herself from her former community, many of whom judge her harshly for leaving her husband. At the shelter, which she cohabitates with a lively group of women and children who share her circumstances, she plays Iranian dance videos, trying to make it feel a bit more like home for Mona, and for herself. She excitedly and painstakingly prepares for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, by making the traditional sabzeh (sprouted wheat) over the course of several weeks, tending to it delicately to ensure its steady growth. A steady dose of retro Iranian pop and lively communal rituals bring a buoyant energy to the film, suggesting that for Niasari, these memories are as strong, if not stronger than the traumatic ones. 

Throughout “Shayda,” Niasari captures the little ways that Shayda and Mona find happiness despite their struggles, and it’s these scenes that bring a real sense of authenticity to the film. The two actresses have an unmatched chemistry as mother and daughter, often seeming to speak to each other without saying a word. As Mona, newcomer Zahednia is a joy to watch — especially as her face lights up earnestly when Shayda brings her home a pet goldfish, which she names Simba (it is 1995, after all), or as she admires a group of professional dancers at a Nowruz celebration. Niasari, who was mentored by Abbas Kiarostami in 2015, seems to share his skill for bringing about extraordinary performances in children. The delicate camerawork from DP Sherwin Akbarzadeh ushers us into their private world with tight, intimate shots of whispers exchanged or two hands holding on tightly on the bus, tenderly highlighting the unique relationship that these two share.

“Shayda” is most successful in encapsulating these details and thoughtfully reconstructing the world that Niasari and her mother occupied together. When you zoom out, however, the film loses some of its charm, with a rather predictable structure and a flimsy love interest plotline that feels like an afterthought. Still, the film retains its overall strength by focusing on its mother-daughter leads, their enduring bond, and their efforts to carve out a bit of serenity in a chaotic world. 

Grade: B+

“Shayda” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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