Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"What really drives the film is the quietly powerful central performance." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Do you know what they would do to you in Iran?” he asks, and it’s as if she’s supposed to feel lucky.

We meet Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) as she’s touring an Australian airport with her young daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia). The seven-year-old needs to learn where to go, who to talk to, what to do if she finds herself there without her mother. They never talk, in so many words, about the possibility of her being abducted, but viewers will see Shayda’s fear. That’s about to get worse as – despite the fact that the pair have moved into a women’s shelter – a court decides that, for the meantime at least, the man they are afraid of should have unsupervised alone time with the child.

He is Hossein (Osamah Sami), and he comes bearing gifts, showering his kid with affection as such men are wont to do. Mona’s hesitant response says it all. For Shayda there are those barbed comments, which she can’t afford to respond to; she must ensure that he can’t present her as the bad guy. It would be easier if she had more allies. Her own mother tries to persuade her, over the phone, that life would be easier if she behaved properly and went back to him. When she goes to the supermarket, members of the small, close-knit Iranian community glare at her. Only one friend within the community, Elly (Rina Mousavi), stands by her and tries to help her rebuild her life. As it’s coming up to Nowruz (the Persian New Year) it’s particularly important to her to be able to integrate and ensure that her daughter has access to familiar celebrations.

Many aspects of this story are familiar as, indeed, the world is full of men like Hossein. In the UK, around 5% of people experience domestic abuse in any given year. It gains additional complexity from its integration with an immigrant narrative, however; and specificity from its roots in writer/director Noora Niasari’s own experiences. She was once in Mona’s position, and the film’s emotional arc is centred on the relationship between mother and child. Shayda tries to protect Mona without frightening her, and to create a sense of home in their small, bare room through little things like decorations, growing cress and acquiring a goldfish. Further isolated by racism, they nonetheless begin to bond with the other women and children in the shelter, and in due course a possible romantic prospect enters Shayda’s life – but of course, the threat of violence from Hossein is never far away.

What really drives the film is the quietly powerful central performance. Ebrahimi was named Best Actress at Cannes in 2022 for her work in Holy Spider, and she’s equally impressive, though very different, here. Although the supporting characters are somewhat underdeveloped, she is aided by excellent work from young Zahednia, ensuring that the central relationship rings true. Niasari spends a lot of time filming them in close-up, emphasising both the smallness of the spaces in which they are forced to hide and the intimacy that exists between them.

An effective thriller and an affecting emotional drama, Shayda is well worth two hours of your time.

Reviewed on: 29 Feb 2024
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Shayda, an Iranian mother, finds refuge in an Australian women’s shelter with her six-year-old daughter. Over Persian New Year, they take solace in Nowruz rituals and new beginnings, but when her estranged husband re-enters their lives, Shayda’s path to freedom is jeopardised.

Director: Noora Niasar

Writer: Noora Niasar

Starring: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Leah Purcell, Jillian Nguyen, Mojean Aria, Selina Zahednia

Year: 2023

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia

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