TORONTO: Based on writer-director Noora Niasari’s own experiences, “Shayda” is an intimate yet striking drama that shines a light on the courage and resilience of women and mothers, more specifically single and immigrant mothers.
Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi who gained critical acclaim for “Holy Spider” in 2022) is an Iranian woman who immigrated to Australia to accompany her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) while he finishes his university degree. Their relationship starts to get violent and in 1995, where this film begins, Shayda escapes with her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) to a women’s shelter. The story takes place during the two weeks of the Persian New Year, also known as Nowruz. What should be a joyous time celebrating with loved ones, Shayda has to deal with legal proceedings to gain full custody of Mona but while that’s underway, the courts allow Hossein unsupervised time with Mona. This unnerves Shayda because if Hossein wanted to, he could kidnap the child and flee.
At the women’s shelter, Shayda tries to bring some normalcy to an abnormal situation for Mona and herself by participating in the customs of Nowruz. They put together their Haft-Sin and make decorations around a small table. Mona, however, has her heart set on fire jumping with the Iranian community, which is one of the events that marks the new year. Shayda is hesitant because it means having to meet the judgmental eye of her community. The shame and criticism a woman gets for leaving her marriage —even if it means protecting her life and that of her child — is a topic that Noora Niasari isn’t afraid to tackle because those cultural pressures are still prevalent today.
While Zar Amir Ebrahimi shines in the titular role, it is Selina Zahednia as Mona who is the real star. It is a difficult role but the young performer is emotionally intelligent and hits all her marks creating a standout performance.
Overall, it’s a fine piece of Australian cinema that will tug at your heart strings and open your eyes to an underrepresented community and stories we don’t often pay attention to.
“Shayda” played as a part of the Centrepiece program at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.