Shayda’s principal scene is the plain facade of a suburban home, where a group of women is attempting to reclaim their lives. The protagonist is determined to flee an abusive marriage with her little daughter and refuses to return to their native Iran.
Noora Niasari’s debut feature, set in 1995 Australia, is based on her experiences as a child in such a shelter and is a memorial to the writer-mother. director Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s acting and her sweet chemistry with Selina Zahednia as 6-year-old Mona contribute to the drama.
Early scenes are filled with shadows and a sense of impending dread. Shayda went to Australia with Hossein (Osamah Sami) and their young daughter four years ago so that he could pursue medical school. In addition to becoming a student, she has renounced the hijab and adopted the relative liberties of a Western woman, angering her husband with her newfound independence. Unwilling to comprehend the severity of the rift or accept responsibility for his harshness against her, he expects them to return to Iran as a family when he graduates, despite her divorce petition.
As with many such legal cases, Hossein is unexpectedly given weekly visitation rights before to the custody hearing, while being prohibited from calling his daughter.
The initial court-ordered meeting takes place in a shopping center and is fraught with dread. When Hossein and Mona return late after their half-day together, Shayda’s innermost worries erupt, accompanied by a sudden shortness of breath.
Mona takes some time to warm up to her father, whom she hasn’t seen in a while, and even then she is reticent. When her parents engage in a few angry exchanges, the girl’s silence is startling, especially in comparison to her melodramatic cries over stolen toys and other common slights at the shelter.
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There, the steady Joyce (Leah Purcell) administers the modest population with subtle tenderness. Vi (Jillian Nguyen), Cathy (Bev Killick), Renee (Lucinda Armstrong Hall), who has an infant and finds Shayda useful for babysitting, and Lara (Eve Morey), a British woman who hasn’t seen her son in more than two years, are among the residents.
Regardless of their differences and frictions, these women speak the same language as Shayda when it comes to the requirement of escape and sanctuary. Shayda does not need to explain her position to them, however, her mother, who is extremely cognizant of tradition, gossip, and the need to maintain appearances, begs her to reunite with Hossein over the phone: “He’ll be a doctor soon.”
Shayda holds things close to the vest when she meets up with Elly (Rina Mousavi), a sympathetic Iranian acquaintance. This may be because she hasn’t quite overcome her anxieties about social propriety, or because she simply doesn’t wallow.
When she reveals to a lawyer the full extent of her ordeal — how Hossein abused her and how paternalistic the police were in their response to her pleas for help — Niasari’s writing is all the more potent for being straightforward and unadorned, and Amir Ebrahimi’s nuanced performance reveals how heartbreakingly real Shayda’s trauma is.
A new acquaintance with Elly’s cousin Farhad (Mojean Aria) provides an essential glimmer of optimism. Her first contact with the young man, in the pulsating brightness of disco, is a microcosm of the movie’s juxtaposition between darkness and light.
Niagara and cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh weave the action throughout the film between a domain of secrecy and tension and one of lightness and play.
Shayda’s preparations for Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration, are at the core of the latter, with each symbolic element of the customary haft-sin table being a gift she gives to Mona. In Zahednia’s portrayal, the director captures not only a vigilant, anxious daughter but also a skilled, thrilled pupil.
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Amir Ebrahimi, who won the award for best actress at Cannes for her portrayal of a journalist in the murder thriller Holy Spider, is in a very different mood here, yet in both films she is quietly captivating, expressing an unwillingness to retreat into predetermined roles. And Sami, in what could have been a thankless, one-dimensional role, turns the self-righteous Hossein both horrible and pitiful, overcome by the danger he senses in Shayda’s strength.
This is especially true when one of his Saturdays with Mona takes a dramatic turn towards ominousness, with Akbarzadeh’s quick camera and Elika Rezaee’s deft editing drawing the audience into increasing peril.
Niagara and Amir Ebrahimi make it apparent that, if fortitude is required to overcome such trouble, which is fueled by ignorance and insecurity, then so is joy. When Shayda dances, she asks Mona to join her, and when the 6-year-old mimics her mother’s steps, it is evident that defiance, love, and resiliency are in perfect harmony.
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