Zar Amir Ebrahimi's eyes are an astounding contrast. In "Shayda," dark circles hang heavy beneath her, contributing to her world-weary, anxious gaze. However, if you look deeper into her uneasy stare and almost translucent hazel irises, there is a hint of hope that hasn't been completely eradicated.
Ebrahimi is cast as the eponymous Shayda, an Iranian woman who is attempting to free herself from her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), who is finishing his medical degree in Brisbane. Although her strained expression betrays her despair, she resists the temptation to give in to despair as she speaks softly to her six-year-old daughter, knowing she must maintain her strength for both of their safety.
Ebrahimi brings this delicate mixture of emotions to "Shayda," inspired by Niasari's own childhood and her mother's attempts to escape her abusive husband, along with the strict moral codes of Iranian culture. She's already moved to a women's shelter in a secret location, where she's attempting to make a divorce case with the help of warm and pragmatic shelter director Joyce (Leah Purcell).
Shayda, an Iranian antigovernment singer who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for 'Holy Spider,' has been perfectly cast. She fled from Iran in 2008, facing prison time after a tape was circulated showing her having sex outside of shedlock, and today uses her platform to protest the treatment of women in her native country.
Shayda is unable to get a divorce from Hossein in Iran without losing custody of Mona. Even in Australia, Hossein is permitted to visit Mona unsupervised, putting him at risk of abducting her. It's only during these visits that Hossein begins to work his way back into Shayda's mind, questioning who she's been socializing with or how she's dressed during their brief but intense interactions.
Shayda's hatred and fear for Hossein are unambiguous, yet her beliefs about her culture are complex. Even as she distances herself from her previous community, she plays lively Iranian dance videos in which she feels that she's made a bit more herself than Mona's husband. The films' rich energy suggests that these memories are as strong as the traumatic ones.
Niasari captures the moments in which Shayda and Mona find joy despite their difficulties, and it's these moments that bring a real authenticity to the film — especially when Shayda brings home a pet goldfish she names Simba (it's 1995, after all), or as she admires a group of professional dancers at a Nowruz celebration.
'Shayda' is the most effective at capturing these details and thoughtfully reconstructing the world that Niasari and her mother occupied together. When you zoom out, however, the film loses some of its charm, as a rather predictable structure and a flimsy love interest plotline that feels like an afterthought. However, the film maintains its overall appeal by focusing on its mother-daughter relationships and their desire to maintain some serenity in a chaotic world.
The film "Shayda" was selected for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently being distributed in the United States.