‘Shayda’ Review: Escaping gender violence in Iran

"Shayda" Sony Pictures Classics

Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) escapes gender violence in Iran taking refuge in a Australian women’s shelter with a young daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia).  In Noora Niasari’s debut dramatic feature, She is trying to break free of her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), who’s finishing his medical studies in Brisbane.

Shayda does not want to return to an uncertain future in Iran with Mona after Hossein’s studies are finished. She is trying to build a case for divorce with the help of the warm and pragmatic shelter director Joyce (Leah Purcell). While they’re far from Iran, the country’s attitudes toward women’s autonomy follow her in the form of criticisms from her small Persian circle in Brisbane and phone calls from her mother back home begging her to give her husband Hossein a second chance. 

The film is modeled after Niasari’s own upbringing and her mother’s attempt to escape her own abusive husband, along with the strict moral codes of Iranian culture. Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes last year for “Holy Spider,” is perfectly cast as Shayda. The actress fled from Iran in 2008, facing prison time after a tape circulated showing her having sex outside of wedlock, and today uses her platform to speak out about the treatment of women in her home country. “Shayda” was made before the Iranian antigovernment protests began last fall, and the film’s message only rings more true today.

Niasari, who was mentored by Abbas Kiarostami in 2015, seems to share his skill for bringing about extraordinary performances in children. The delicate camerawork from DP Sherwin Akbarzadeh ushers us into their private world with tight, intimate shots of whispers exchanged.

The film is set in the backdrop of Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebrations including making traditional sabzeh (sprouted wheat) over the course of several weeks, tending to it delicately to ensure its steady growth. Jumping over fire before Nowruz is symbolic of the struggles Shayda and Mona face and letting go of the past. Nowruz means new day or new beginning in farsi. Symbolic of Nowruz, this film represents a new day or new beginning for Shayda and Mona. The film release is timely in time for Nowruz.