Zar Amir and Selina Zahednia are superb in Shayda, playing an Iranian mother and daughter fighting to be free from their abusive husband-father.
Halfway through Noora Niasari’s Shayda, there’s a scene where the film’s protagonist is dancing at a club, surrounded by her girlfriends and wearing a gorgeous, shiny dress. Rozalia’s “Everybody’s Free” is playing, and so it would seem, if we were to take that scene out of context. But while dancing is liberating for the other women at the club, we know that it’s the opposite for Shayda (Zar Amir), whose every living moment is accompanied by an everpresent undercurrent of tension, fear and paranoia that gets even louder in the presence of men.
Because Shayda is no ordinary woman, and she can’t afford to let her guard down and enjoy these her brief moments of freedom, not even for a second. Originally from Iran, our protagonist has been living at a women’s shelter in Australia with her six-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) for the past few months, while she waits for a custody hearing that will determine both their fates. Having filed for divorce, Shayda is hiding from an abusive, violent husband (Osamah Sami’s Hossein) who wants to take Mona and go back to Iran. But it’s not easy for our protagonist, whose terror of running into Hossein has completely taken over her life, to the point that even grocery shopping has become an ordeal. And on top of that, she has to keep a calm façade for her daughter, who’s struggling to adjust to this new lifestyle.
Things get even scarier when a judge grants Hossein visitation rights with Mona, and the two of them start regularly spending some time together. As Hossein reenters their lives, Shayda’s fear increases, and Mona is stuck in the middle of it all, having to keep secrets for both parents and not knowing how to act around her own father – a man she knows to be violent, but whom she still loves nonetheless.
But things are just as bad for Shayda, who’s being judged by most of the people around her. “No one’s perfect,” her mother tells her, on the phone, reminding her that Hussain’s about to be a doctor, and asking her to forgive him. “Do you have any idea what people are saying about you?,” she asks, concluding that she “must have done something wrong,” as there are rumors all the way to Iran. Even her own daughter blames her for a situation she doesn’t fully understand, and Shayda finds herself completely on her own, trying to conceal so many contrasting emotions that we can perceive at all times.
Throughout the film, the tension rises as Hussain becomes more controlling and insistent, and our protagonists’ world becomes more claustrophobic than ever. When a nice man named Farhad (Mojean Aria) enters Shayda’s life and Hussain finds out about him, things escalate even further, and mother and daughter have to be stronger than ever to hold on to the freedom they fought so hard to achieve.
Shayda explores familiar themes, but what sets it apart from other movies are its performances and heart. Zar Amir is absolutely flawless, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given her recent work in Holy Spider and Tatami. In the past two years alone, the Iranian-French actress, producer and director showed us her incredible range as an actor, and, in Shayda, she’s pretty much what holds the film together. It’s impossible to take our eyes off the screen as we let Amir take us on a rollercoaster of emotions, shaping a character that could have become a cliché into anybody else’s hands, and turning her into someone we truly care about.
Selina Zahednia is astonishing as Mona, even more so considering that not only is she only 7 years old, but this is her very first role. Amir and Zahednia have incredible chemistry together but are just as good on their own, owning the screen at all times, often with no dialogue at all.
At the end of the film, we’re shown some footage of the director a child, and it becomes even more evident that Shayda is a personal project for Noora Niasari, whose own childhood experiences with her mother at an Australian women’s shelter shaped the tale she tells in the film. Though the story is told in a conventional way, it’s elevated by the heart that Niasari poured into it, which makes it feel more authentic.
Sometimes, when a story is so personal, it’s hard to take a step back and see it in a rational way, and I think this might have happened here. Shayda is an enthralling watch in so many ways, but it also suffers from some narrative issues, the biggest one being the abuser, Hussain. The more we watch him interact with his wife and daughter, the less believable he becomes, as he feels like he was written as an evil antagonistic figure and not really given much depth besides that.
“You can change your appearance but it doesn’t change who you really are,” he tells his wife when she gets a haircut. Later in the film, we see him stalk her, choke her, and threaten her with one liners that are so unrealistic to become nearly laughable, turning him into a caricature of sorts. It gets even worse at the end, where a completely unnecessary scene of violence makes him come across as even less believable, right before the film comes to its conclusion in an underwhelming, extremely rushed way.
A similar issue can be found with the other women at the shelter, who could have been such interesting characters if only they had been given more personality. One of them gets a backstory of sorts, but the others are clearly only there to help Shayda move forward as a character. This is such a shame when the very best moment of the film is a scene where the women are dancing together, finally feeling as liberated as they should as they’re within the safety of the shelter’s walls.
Looking at the way both Hussain and the women were written, it feels like Niasari was so concentrated on her mother-daughter duo — whose story she told incredibly well — that she lost track of everyone else, and it’s a shame, as a much more compelling, multilayered movie could have come out of it. However, Shayda is still worth the watch for the important issues it raises, elevated by exceptional performances that will place you right there and then with its protagonists.
Shayda was screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival. The film will have a limited theatrical release in the US from December 1, 2023, and will open in cinemas across the UK & Ireland in March 2024.