Shayda – movie review

The powerful Australian produced and shot drama Shayda is set in suburban Australia in 1995 but has contemporary resonance as it deals with some important themes. It centres around Shayda (Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who is married to Hossein (Osama Sami) who has moved to Australia to study medicine and become a doctor. He has brought his wife and young daughter to Australia with him but because of his arrogance and brutal treatment she has fled, taking six-year-old Mona (Selina Zahednia) with her, and files for divorce.

When the film opens Shayda is living in a shelter for abused women, run by the sympathetic social worker Joyce (Leah Purcell, from the award-winning The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson). But when the courts grant Hossein temporary visitation rights the tension mounts as Shayda becomes suspicious that he wants to take Mona back to Iran with him. Hossein is a jealous man given to outbursts of anger and even physical violence, as witnessed during a Persian New Year’s Eve celebration when he attacks and beats Farhad (Mojean Aria), a young Iranian/Canadian visitor who had been talking and flirting with Shayda. It is clear that Hossein wants to reunite his family, but he is acting out of guilt and shame rather than out of love.

Shayda is a sometime bleak and grim drama that also serves up an an exploration of the ordeals faced by Iranian women within a strict and patriarchal society. It is not always a comfortable film to watch. The film has been produced under the auspices of Oscar winning actress Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton. The film has been largely shot in the Farsi language with subtitles, although some scenes set in the shelter use English as it is a common international language.

Shayda is the debut feature for Australian/Iranian filmmaker Noora Niasari after a handful of short films and it is a deeply personal film that is dedicated to the memory of her mother and the brave women of Iran. During the end credits there is some home video footage of her with her mother. Niasari has drawn largely from her own experiences of growing up and living in a shelter in Brisbane as a young girl as her own mother tried to escape and abusive relationship, and her observations of the day-to-day routines and concerns of the women living in the shelter reek of authenticity. She is unflinching in her depiction of domestic violence and the emotional toll that being trapped in an oppressive marriage takes. But the film also resonates strongly with its theme of a woman trying to take charge of the direction of her own life and resisting the restraints placed upon her by a strict and conservative society. This marks an assured first feature for Niasari who establishes herself as a filmmaker to watch in the future. Shayda gives us some insights into a community and its customs about which we know little.

Ebrahimi (who won the best actress award at Cannes in 2022 for her performance in Holy Spider) grounds the film with her superb performance that captures Shayda’s vulnerability, her turmoil, her fears and her resolve, immersing the audience in her struggle and her story. In her first film, young Zahednia matches Ebrahimi and they establish a strong bond that adds to the film’s sense of authenticity. Largely cast against type, stand up comic Sami (Ali’s Wedding) brings a hint of menace to his performance as Hossein.

The film has been shot in a dark and sombre colour palette by cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh (the Bob Brown documentary The Giants), which gives the material a gritty feel. His cinema verite style also adds a sense of immediacy to the material.

Chosen as the opening night film for the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Shayda has done well on the international film festival circuit where it has won numerous awards.

Greg King

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