The eyes of the actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi arrest the contradiction. In “Shayda,” dark hoops hang below them, contributing to her world-weary, worried gaze. But if you look deeper into his troubled eyes and almost translucent hazel irises, there is a glimmer of light and a kind of hope that has not yet been completely suppressed.
In Noora Nasari’s debut film, Ebrahimi plays the eponymous Shayda, an Iranian woman living in Australia in 1995 trying to break free from her abusive husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami), who is finishing his medical studies in Brisbane. Her great exhaustion is evident from the first scene of the film, in which she instructs her six-year-old daughter, Mona (Selina Zahedni), what to do if Hossein tries to kidnap her. Although her anguished expression betrays her anguish, she resists the urge to give in to despair as she speaks softly to her daughter, knowing that she must conserve her strength for the safety of both of them.
Ebrahimi brings this delicate mix of emotions to “Shayda,” which is about Nasari’s own upbringing and her mother’s attempt to escape her own abusive husband and the strict moral code of Iranian culture. When the story begins, Shayda and Mona have already moved into a women’s shelter in a secret location, where she tries to build a divorce case with the help of the shelter’s warm and practical director, Joyce (Leah Purcell). Although they are far from Iran, the country’s attitudes towards women’s autonomy follow her in the form of critiques from Brisbane’s small Persian circle and phone calls from her mother at home to give her husband Hossein a second chance.
Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for Holy Spider, plays the role of Shayda perfectly. The actress, who fled Iran in 2008 and faces jail time after a tape showing her having sex outside of marriage was circulated, is now speaking out on her platform about the treatment of women in her country. “Shayda” was made before Iran’s anti-government protests began last fall, and the film’s message rings even truer today.
Shayda cannot divorce Hossein in Iran without losing custody of Mona. Even in Australia, Hossein has the right to visit Mona unsupervised, causing Shayda to fear that he may try to kidnap her. During these visits, Hossein slowly begins to find his way back into Shayda’s psyche, questioning who she communicated with or how she dressed during their brief but strained relationship.
While Shayda’s hatred and fear of Hossein are clear, her feelings about his culture are more complicated. She lives abroad and tries to preserve 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, where he lives with a group of vibrant women and children who share his circumstances, he plays Iranian dance videos, trying to make it a little more homely for Mona and himself. She is excitedly and diligently preparing for Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year sabzeh (germinated wheat) for several weeks, gently tended to ensure even growth. A steady dose of retro Iranian pop and vibrant community rituals give the film a buoyant energy that suggests that for Nasari, these memories are just as powerful, if not stronger, than the traumas.
In “Shayda,” Nasari captures the small ways in which Shayda and Mona find happiness despite their struggles, and these scenes give the film real authenticity. The two actresses have an unmatched chemistry as mother and daughter, often seeming to speak to each other without speaking. As Mona, newbie Zahedni is a joy to watch – especially when her face seriously lights up when Shayda brings home a goldfish she names Simba (it is 1995, after all) or when she admires a troupe of professional dancers in celebration of Nowruz. Mentored by Abbas Kiarostami in 2015, Nasari seems to share his ability to create extraordinary performances in children. DP Sherwin Akbarzadeh’s fine camera work takes us into their private world with tight, intimate, alternating whispers, or holding hands tightly on the bus, gently emphasizing the bond they share.
“Shayda” is most successful in embracing these details and thoughtfully reconstructing the world Nasari and her mother lived together. However, when zoomed out, the film loses its charm, with a fairly predictable structure and a flimsy love plot that feels like an afterthought. Still, the film retains its overall power by focusing on the mother-daughter protagonists, their enduring bond, and their efforts to carve a modicum of calm out of a chaotic world.
Shayda premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently distributed in the United States.