Someone can’t not contemplate the current plight of women during anti-hijab protests in Iran while watching Shayda, the devastating feature directorial debut of Australian-Iranian filmmaker Noora Niasari. Her protagonist Shayda, played by Holy Spider’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi, lets go of the headscarf, cuts her hair short and files for divorce from her abusive husband who has threatened her with consequences if she tries to leave her. (Read also: Nocturnal Burger review: A rich, layered snapshot of the cost of liberation)
Shayda, which premiered in the World Dramatic Competition category at the Sundance Film Festival, is based on Noora’s own childhood. Set in 1995, Shayda begins with the protagonist taking refuge in a women’s shelter with her young daughter Mona (seven-year-old Selina Zahednia). Here she meets the steadfast and resourceful shelter director Joyce (Leah Purcell) and the other residents of the shelter, each of whom is dealing with a loss.
Soon we will learn that Shayda had moved to Australia with her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), who then raped her. So she took her daughter and somehow escaped. Shayda will not be a victim in her story and sets out to rebuild both her life and Mona’s life from the ground up. She is filing for divorce on the grounds of sexual assault and wants the word “rape” included in the charges.
But even as she slowly finds some sort of stability in the secret hiding place and slowly discovers her own sense of self, she knows the solutions are better said than delivered. Hossein still gets access to Mona, and this would also mean Shayda has to face him over and over again. Trying to create a safe place for herself and her child doesn’t help, and the ongoing legal action has already put her in a compromising situation.
Hossein warns her, “You can’t stay here, divorce and keep the child.” When her mother calls, Shayda is stunned to hear her logic of forgiveness as he is still a good father. Meanwhile, she had also met this young guy in college named Farhad (Mojean Aria) who likes her but she doesn’t know if she is. ready to let go of her past so quickly.
Even if Shayda gets a little predictable in the second half, Niasari is still able to pull off the immediacy of her character’s situations steadily. As disturbing as the subject is, Shayda never turns herself into a brooder of pain. This is a story of resilience and healing, where a woman reclaims her identity and language.
Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for Holy Spider, gives a crushing performance full of emotional transparency. A scene earlier in the film where she breaks down in tears as she believes Hossein has taken her child away after the brief visit that is largely captured by a tight close-up on her face – as she expresses fear, regret, pain and despair – is unforgettable. She is ably supported by child actor Selina Zahednia’s beautifully textured twist. When Mona steadily begins to understand her father’s actions, it is heartbreaking.
Shayda could easily have fallen into melodramatic tendencies, but Noora carefully deconstructs the dangers and manipulations that stand in her protagonist’s way. Withstanding big, dramatically charged scenes, Shayda becomes a mature and triumphant portrait of motherly strength. Shayda should be scared and afraid, but she chooses hope and courage. Despite a destabilizing trauma, that’s her victory.