Shayda (2023)

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Prescient direction by Noora Niasari and actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s intuitive reach for her character’s touchpoints prevent a predictable plot from short-sheeting the story before its interpreters can inhabit its carefully tendered folds.

Set in Australia, this is the story of Shayda, the Iranian wife of Hossein, who threatens and abuses her so violently that she can’t bring herself to reveal the extent of his perfidy. She has summoned the determination to leave him, taking their six-year-old daughter Mona with her. We meet her as, under the watchful eye of her domestic violence sponsor, she gives Mona age-appropriate instructions on how to find help in the transit station where she will meet her father for court-ordered visits. 
 The court with jurisdiction is in Iran, and divorce transactions carry the encumbrances of translations carried out in what should be strict anonymity so that Hossein cannot locate his wife and daughter in a home for victims of domestic violence.

As the Persian New Year of Nowruz approaches, amidst the noisy comings and goings of their Australian co-tenants, Shayda and Mona feel their isolation all the more. In discreet shots of Shayda setting out a plate filled with burberries to sprout, or encouraging her daughter to dance with her to music from home, the viewer becomes an ally in their quest to maintain their integrity. Each such scene is a little ode to the depth of Iranian culture, rich in its color, poetic specificity of language, musicality, and beautification in the celebration of the New Year, none of which they want to lose even as they separate from its patriarchally-mandated peonage. Shayda is fighting for her freedom at the same time that she must win her daughter’s confidence that she will be successful in protecting them from harm—harm which they by no means have a monopoly on. To their horror, they learn that it is all around them in the lives of their Australian roommates.

On still another front, Shayda must fight for her dignity in the Iranian exile community in Australia with its back channels to the homeland. It is in these tunnels of turbulence that reputations are sullied. It is hard to distinguish friend from foe in its fish-bowl social life, and then there are the long-distance phone calls from Shayda’s mother. The content of those might as well be communicated in one international language: the idiom of daughter shaming.
This film’s appeal is in the manner of its telling, with swells and ebbs that make for the small tempests that are the blight of everyday domesticity. As we reach with Shayda to clear the hurdles that obscure the path to her walking tall and walking free with the full endorsement of her daughter, we grow alongside them. We step onto the armature they have built, the better to support facets of a life free of infringement that asks for nothing more than the courage to certify the strength of one’s convictions.

Toba Singer

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