Film Review: “Shayda” — Memories of a Courageous Mother

By Steve Erickson

Noora Niasari’s personal involvement elevates Shayda above melodramatic Lifetime fare: this is a compellingly warm tribute to the Iranian director’s mother.

Shayda, written, directed and co-produced by Noora Niasari. Screening on Kendall Square Cinema

Zar Amir Ebrahami and Selina Zahednia in Shayda.

Shayda makes use of several common film tics, from the small square of the Academy ratio to the even more widespread use of footage of the real people that the movie transforms into characters. However, the home videos playing over the closing credits of the film help explain its autobiographical style. Shot in 1995, when the narrative takes place, we see director Noora Niasari as a child. This feature is based on a period in Naisari’s life when she and her mother — who had just moved to Australia from Iran so the woman and her husband could attend college — lived in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. This personal involvement elevates Shayda above melodramatic Lifetime fare: this is a compellingly warm tribute to Niasari’s mother.

Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahami) and her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) are busy preparing for the Nowruz (Persian New Year) holiday, buying goldfish and sweets. Despite being on the receiving end of violence, including sexual assault, from her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), she can’t untangle herself from him. They get together regularly for tense meetings in public spaces, usually malls, where he spends the afternoon with Mona. His abuse extends to her finances; the Iranian government cuts off her scholarship. (Even with her living halfway around the world, Iranian officials have tremendous power over her options in life.) When they meet, her husband’s behavior is as manipulative as it gets: offering gifts, making promises that double as thinly concealed threats. When she goes out dancing, Shayda meets an Canadian-Iranian man who seems like a far kinder potential partner.

The film doesn’t bring this information out into the open, but the important role of Nowruz for Shayda and her community has a political dimension. Celebrated as a public holiday in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as Iran,  the celebration originated in the Zoroastrian religion — before Persians converted to Islam. Shayda presents the holiday as a means of paying homage to a cosmopolitan Iranian culture that existed thousands of years before the country’s present-day theocracy. (This is the first part of a trilogy Niasari plans to make about Iranian women.)

Almost all the dialogue in Shayda is spoken in Farsi and the narrative takes place in Melbourne’s immigrant community, whose support is essential for Shayda. Despite her dire circumstances, the woman has an active social life and remains determined to enjoy life as much as she can. The film places her love of color, music, and dancing forward. Still, the close-knit Australian-Iranian community can only offer her and her child so much protection. Shayda always seems less than six degrees of separation from Hossein. After entering the shelter, she cuts her hair shorter and dons a hat and sunglasses to go grocery shopping. Despite the attempted disguise, her neighbors still recognize her. Out at a nightclub, she wonders if she sees Hossein lurking in the distance. Most of the time, nothing comes of her anxieties, but they only have to become a reality once or twice for her terror to be justified. Ebrahami’s performance combines an inner strength with a dread that her life could come crashing down the next moment. In Shayda’s vulnerable position, violence is inevitable. The question is how far it might go.

Unfortunately, Shayda loses its narrative focus during its final third. While the film doesn’t turn into a thriller, gestures are made in that direction, with touches that detract from what had been a nuanced character study. The plot stumbles as it tries to bridge the tricky gap between a character study and a suspenseful crowd-pleaser. At almost two hours, the runtime starts to drag.

Still, Niasari’s style stays true to the tensions generated by her story. Shewin Akbarzadeh’s cinematography isn’t as degraded as the ‘90s digital video shown during the credits, but the film’s slightly smeared look reflects the period setting. (Aside from Mona and Hossein seeing The Lion King, there aren’t many overt references to the time period.) Horror films tend to paint their jump scares in deep shades of black. Niasari and Akbarzadeh bring out the vitality of Shayda and her world via bright colors. But the presence of darkness lingers around her, and when it hits home, the monstrosity is much more troubling than a ghost jumping into the frame.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, Bells and Whistles, was released in January 2024, and is available to stream here.

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