Shayda: Sheltering from abuse in a faraway sanctuary

Shayda: Sheltering from abuse in a faraway sanctuary
4 min read
20 October, 2023

In the opening few minutes of Shayda, the feature directorial debut of Australian director Noora Niasari which played at the 2023 London Film Festival, a wide-eyed young girl walks through an airport holding her mother's hand.

She looks around nervously, so does her mother, but not because they are about to miss their flight. "Mona, see these counters?" says a friendly woman with wild grey and blonde curls, crouching down in front of the little girl. "It's really important that you remember what they look like."

The true, sorrowful purpose of their visit is to train Mona on what to do in case her father abducts her. Thus begins Niasari's evocative and deeply personal story about one woman's battle for autonomy and freedom in the face of domestic oppression.

"Shayda is a powerfully performed reminder that domestic abuse is still far too common an experience for women and children in the world"

Zar Amir Ebrahimi takes the lead as the eponymous mother, an Iranian immigrant in Melbourne, circa 1995, who has escaped her violent husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) and taken refuge with their daughter at a women's shelter.

They're not the only mother and daughter in hiding; a white Aussie duo and a Southeast Asian pair live at the nondescript suburban residence with little in common but their dire circumstances.

Niasari captures the claustrophobic tension that ferments in the small residence where language and cultural barriers cause rifts between the various women and girls. The bland decor and muted, natural lighting add to the purgatorial state this shelter represents.

The threat of being found, of Mona being kidnapped, is never far away from Shayda's mind and Ebrahimi expresses that with every darting eye, heavy breathing and tightness of her body when she leaves the safety of the shelter.

The Iranian diaspora is so small that even visiting the local Persian market wearing a new haircut, a hat and sunglasses doesn't protect her identity from the community-at-large.

Then there are the moments when Shayda must relive her trauma by having her testimony recited and translated for the custody case against her ex. Here the cultural conflict between Australian and Iranian legal systems rears its head as a biased translator tells Shayda she will lose her child if she divorces her husband anyway.

Later the explicit detail of Hossein's abuse is revealed and Ebrahimi once again exhibits a keen sense of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to relate the triggering experience it is for Shayda to hear it repeated back to her.

It's a completely different sort of performance than that which the actor gave in Holy Spider as  Arezoo Rahimi, a female journalist combatting systemic misogyny as she hunts a serial killer in the Iranian city of Mashhad.

But there's a similar empowering spirit that fuels both Arezoo and Shayda that speaks to the patriarchal discrimination against women in Iran as well as the diaspora.

She's willing to risk her social standing and cultural ties to protect herself and her daughter from a life of violent subservience. The physical violence towards women is kept to a minimum but Sami imbues Hossein with quiet menace during scheduled visits with Mona that builds to a shocking third act expression of male fragility and entitlement.

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While the film obviously zooms in on the specific experience of an Iranian family, the threat of domestic abuse and male violence is a universally relatable experience that Niasari presents with nuance, patience and empathy.

There's also a lot of love and warmth displayed through Shayda's unwavering celebration of their Persian heritage. Scenes between Ebrahimi and gorgeous newcomer Selina Zahednia often revolve around the Persian calendar. They smile and laugh as much as they fret and cry, hoping for the stability of life without the shadow of violence.

Shayda is a powerfully performed reminder that domestic abuse is still far too common an experience for women and children in the world. It is also a rich portrayal of Iran beyond its oppressive regime but of its people and the importance of its time-honoured rituals and traditions being passed onto future generations, in and outside the country.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint