When one thinks back on a movie like Shayda, the first feature-length film that Iranian-Australian writer-director Noora Niasari directed and wrote, the mind will inevitably focus on the minutiae of the story. A scene in which characters discover joy in dance can have the same impact on the audience as one in which the all-too-common violence bursts in. It is a work that immerses us in this tableau of a life that has been entirely upended and is, piece by piece, being reconstructed.
For this reason, it was awarded the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Nisari’s vision brings all of this to life by drawing from her personal experiences, much like many recent excellent movies have done, and there are universally strong performances all around. It makes for an unflinching exploration of the hard path back to tranquillity after everything else has been thrown into disarray, even if some of its advances are occasionally inconsistent.
Shayda, played by the multidimensional Zar Amir Ebrahimi, has recently relocated to a women’s shelter in Australia and is learning how to navigate this new existence. She is there with her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia), who is six years old, and is hoping to get a divorce from her abusive husband. The other women with her, most of whom already have children of their own, are bound together by a common goal: they want nothing more than to lead a life that is free from terror and in which they can start over. When a judge advised Shayda that she had to let Mona’s father see her during unsupervised visitations, this situation became even more challenging for her.
In an early scene, we get the sense that she is anxious about the possibility that he will eventually abduct her kid and take her back to Iran, even though she does not have much power to prevent this from happening. As Shayda’s case slowly progresses through the legal system, she cannot shake the feeling that she is unfairly punished. The life she is trying everything in her power to establish is one she needs to cling too firmly since everything else in her environment appears to be designed to pull it away from her.
Niasari can discover chinks of brightness despite the ever-increasing gloom as the situation continues to deteriorate. This is done so that the story’s bleak facts are not glossed over in any way, shape, or form at any point. Rather, it is a strategy to heighten the emotional effect of everything taking place as it reveals what Shayda wants for both herself and her kid in the future. She enjoys a peaceful moment with Mona for every difficult chat she has with the woman who runs the shelter, Leah Purcell’s Joyce, regarding what it was that occurred to her to prepare for legal proceedings.
This happens even though their world has been turned upside down, and their future is still unknown. Despite everything hovering over them, they have formed a strong friendship with one another and with the other women staying at the shelter. Some individuals have turned their backs on Shayda, and watching how banding together can help carry the many obstacles they would otherwise have to face alone is moving.
However, some people have turned their backs on Shayda. Niasari allows these situations to play out methodically yet honestly, gradually constructing the universe from the ground up until you have the impression that you know each and every one of these characters. The more we see of them, the more enjoyable the movie becomes.
All of this demonstrates that this path will never be easy, especially since Shayda is aware that she cannot create the life she envisions for herself or her daughter while living in close quarters with a number of other families. Even though it is the only safe living arrangement for her, the movie doesn’t gloss over the fact that it can be mentally tiring to be in such an arrangement, even though it is the only one she can live in.
Niasari treats the slivers of joy she can carve out of her life with the same reverence she does the rest of her life. The more we can observe a mother and daughter revelling in one another’s company during times of happiness, the more excruciating it is for them to be separated. Even though the sequences in which the little girl is ordered by the court to spend time with her father are very brief, it seems as though they last much longer than they actually do because Shayda’s worst fears are repeatedly confirmed. She has no way to receive assistance in these situations.
Niasari demonstrates that it is not just her husband who abandoned her after she left him; she also shows us how many other people from her previous community have done the same thing. This is established subtly by steely stares interspersed with hushed conversations, which demonstrate that no matter what room she is in, there is always the possibility that she is being judged simply for doing everything she can to protect herself and her daughter.
This is brought up in the context of the character’s actions. Despite the fact that she has people who care about her, she is always plagued by the overwhelming fear that many people will continue to view her as an outsider for the rest of her life, which only serves to compound the ongoing unfairness that is the driving force behind the entire scenario.
Niasari never lets us lose sight of Shayda’s humanity, even as she delves deeper and deeper into the grim facts of Shayda’s existence and as she pulls us along for the ride. Even if other movies of this kind simplify all the characters’ complexities to the point that it feels like a punishment and is overly simplistic in how it defines them based on their suffering, this one always manages to find a better balance.
It never avoids confronting the anguish she is going through, but at the same time, it never loses sight of Shayda as a person along the way. Even as she begins to realize that all of this will be something she will have to deal with for the rest of her life, she also finds that as a result, she has gained a great lot of freedom.
This all comes to a head in the final scene, in which Ebrahimi, without really saying much of anything at all, divulges a great deal about Shayda and how the events she has gone through have changed her. While undertaking a study about power and control, it ensures that the film never forgets to be a deep character study as it builds up to these ending scenes.
This is something that happens throughout the film. Ebrahimi delivers a performance that, throughout the entirety, conveys a whole tale on its own and leaves a lingering impact long after the film itself has ended. Even in great isolation, the performance tells a story.