|Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Mojean Aria, Jillian Nguyen, Selina Zahednia, Leah Purcell
|October 5, 2023
We’re less than three months out from the end of 2023 and the nominations will soon be determined for the AACTA Awards, honouring the best in Australian cinema. Personal favourites of mine thus far include Of an Age and Talk to Me but a new entry to add to the list is Shayda. The buzz has been strong since it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.
Inspired by the upbringing of writer-director Noora Niasari, the film is set in 1990s and is centred on Shayda (Ebrahimi), an Iranian mother living in a women’s shelter in Melbourne. Through a series of conversations with the shelter’s caring manager (Purcell), we develop a detailed understanding of Shayda’s backstory.
She had temporarily relocated to Australia with her husband, Hossein (Sami), and her 6-year-old daughter, Mona (Zahednia), while he studied to become a doctor at a local university. The plan was for Hossein to graduate and then the family return to Iran. However, after being subject to physical and mental abuse by her domineering husband, Shayda used the opportunity to escape his control and found refuge at the shelter. It’s a lifeline available in Australia and its Western cultures that would not otherwise be available back in Iran.
The film delves into several interesting subplots. It looks at language barriers and the difficulty of a non-English speaking person seeking legal help in a country like Australia. It explores the psyche of a 6-year-old girl who doesn’t understand her parent’s separation and why she is not living in her usual home. It illustrates the ongoing trauma associated with domestic violence and the difficulty of doing daily chores (like shopping) while constantly looking over one’s shoulder. It taps into the rigidity of Middle Eastern cultures and, as shown by a phone conversation involving Shayda’s mother, an unwillingness to believe a wife’s denunciation of her husband.
Guided by Niasari’s screenplay, the cast are meticulous in imparting each character’s emotions onto the audience. This is most evident during a get-together late in the film where the tension ratchets up to very high levels. You’ll feel the gravity of the situation and its consequences. While it feels unfair to single anyone out, Zar Amir Ebrahimi is especially good in the title role. This adds further weight to her impressive resume which includes the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (for Holy Spider).
Submitted as the Australian entry for Best International Feature at next year’s Academy Awards, Shayda is a superb, thought-provoking piece of cinema.