Strength, Hope, and Freedom: ‘Shayda’ Is a Love Letter to Mothers and Daughters

Shayda movie still

After celebrating its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023, Shayda has finally been released in Australian cinemas. Based on the childhood experiences of director Noora Niasari, who also wrote the film, Shayda is a story that Niasari says was one that she was always going to tell.

Set in the mid-90s, the film tells the story of Iranian mother Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi) and her six-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia), as they find refuge in an Australian women’s shelter. A delicate balance of light and dark, hope and fear, Shayda takes place over Persian New Year, but as Shayda and Mona find solace and moments of joy in Nowruz traditions, Shayda’s estranged husband re-enters their lives, disrupting the peace and threatening their path to freedom.

The film has been met with positive reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival — where it won the World Audience Award — and the Toronto International Film Festival. At the end of August, it was announced as the Australian submission for the 2024 Academy Awards. If nominated, it will represent Australia in the Best International Feature category.

Over Zoom, Niasari speaks with The Latch about the process of bringing Shayda to life, the film’s reception, and more.

Shayda Trailer

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From Lived Experience to the Silver Screen: How Noora Niasari Created Shayda

Over Zoom, Noora Niasari says that “it’s been a really long journey” to bring Shayda, her first feature film, to the big screen.

“It really started around six years ago, when I decided to tackle this story,” she says.

When Niasari was a child, she lived in the women’s shelter with her mother. Since then, the story has “really lived inside [her]”.

“It was six years ago when I asked my Mum to take this journey with me,” Niasari says. “I asked her to write a memoir for me, to fill in the gaps of my childhood memories.”

Her mother agreed, and “spent six months doing that”, with input from Niasari, who notes that it was “a very challenging experience” for her mother “to relive those memories”.

Once the memoir was complete, Niasari then embarked on a writing residency in Spain. There, she adapted her mother’s memoir into the first draft of the script.

“The first draft was very close to our experience before the shelter,” she says. “It was a different makeup to the film.”

Over the next three years, Shayda shifted and evolved. The final version of the film is far less autobiographical than it was originally.

“For me it was about finding the emotional truth of our story, but not necessarily being autobiographical,” she says. “It really became a piece of cinema over time, so it’s really a fusion of reality and fiction, but it’s still emotionally autobiographical.”

Filming Shayda Was an Emotionally Challenging Experience

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Niasari expects Shayda will be “the hardest film [she’ll] ever make”.

“It was very challenging,” she says, “because it’s so close to my childhood trauma and you know, exploring domestic violence and all of the things we’ve survived.”

She recalls having to perform “psychological gymnastics to come out of that triggering place… and to be able to give direction”.

“When the actors embody those situations and they just lock in, it’s so believable, you just go straight back to that place,” she explains.

Noora Niasari on the set of Shayda
Noora Niasari on the set of Shayda. Credit: Madman Films

“I was pushed to the limit in terms of my mental capacity and you know, making a first feature film, there’s a lot of pressure in terms of, it’s already really challenging, and then you add that layer?” she laughs. “You know, I wouldn’t recommend it!”

Still, the overall experience was “also so cathartic”.

“It’s like I had to tell this story,” she says. “I may have done it for my third film, but in a way, I’m relieved that I’ve gotten it out of my system, in a way that’s been able to speak to audiences all over the world. That’s where the catharsis really happened for me, was when I was able to share it with audiences and get the response that we’ve been getting. It’s been just remarkable.”

Finding the Balance Between Light and Dark

Over the course of the film, we see glimmers of light, laughter and hope as Shayda and Mona settle into their new life at the women’s shelter, despite the ongoing fear and stress they’re facing. Niasari says that finding the right balance “was a challenge”, but it was “always an important thing to explore” within the film.

“It was an intention I had from the script stage,” she says, “choosing the framework of Persian New Year, which is this incredibly joyous time in our culture.”

Shayda movie still
Madman Films

Persian New Year takes place on or around March 21, in line with the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Growing up, it’s always been autumn for us, but in Iran and in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s spring, it’s new beginnings, it’s you know, new life,” Niasari says. “It always perplexed me, being in Australia and it being autumn — leaves, trees are dying, it always had a different meaning for us and I wanted to capture that. But also, it’s such a joyous time, and I wanted it to be this opportunity for Shayda to be reclaiming her cultural identity and passing that down to her daughter, because it’s separate to the cultural restrictions that she’s facing.

“She’s able to reclaim something that’s hers, that’s been in our culture for thousands of years, and it has no connection to religion, or politics,” she explains.

“I didn’t want the film to be drowning in the victimhood of domestic violence,” she says. “I wanted it to be about survival, and about hope, and about finding freedom.”

Shayda Is a Love Letter to Mothers and Daughters

The story of Shayda is anchored by the relationship between Shayda and Mona, and Niasari says the search to find the right actors was a long one. After a year-long search, Zar Amir Ebrahimi was cast to play Shayda.

“We pretty much auditioned every Iranian woman in Australia and nobody quite captured what I was looking for,” Niasari recalls. When they began looking internationally, Amir Ebrahimi submitted an audition tape. Suddenly, Niasari had found her Shayda.

“I was blown away within seconds,” she says. “Just the way that she has this strength and vulnerability in the same second, she’s just a remarkable actress.

The process of casting Selina Zahednia to play Mona was “similarly challenging”. With COVID restrictions in place at the time, Zahednia was “one of a hundred girls who submitted tapes”.

Shayda movie still
Madman Films

After being shortlisted, Zahednia was brought in to audition in person, where she blew Niasari away.

“I gave her a situation and she was able to lock into it emotionally to a point where she cried without being prompted,” she says. “And then she was able to snap out of it and dance, and be happy — she understood what acting is. She was only six, it was incredible. And as soon as I saw her in person, I just knew, ‘She’s it’.”

Together, Amir Ebrahimi and Zahednia made the “perfect mother-daughter duo”.

“I’m so proud of them,” Niasari says. “As soon as they met in person, they were just playing, and connecting, and joking around. They just had this immediate connection.

“It was really important, because they’re the core of the film, that mother and daughter connection. It’s really a love letter to mothers and daughters, so finding them was a real gift.”

How Noora Niasari’s Mother Reacted to Shayda

Over the years since Niasari first asked her mother to write the memoir of her life that eventually evolved into Shayda, the film shifted away from its autobiographical roots. With 12 years of experience making short films and documentaries under her belt, Niasari found that she was able to separate the film from her own life and prioritise what was “best for the film and for the story over what really happened”. For her mother, the separation was a little trickier.

“I would say that my mum didn’t have the same ability to do that,” Niasari says. “I would give her drafts to read and she would give me feedback, and she would watch rough cuts, and sometimes she would be like, ‘Oh, but that’s not how it happened, that’s not how they said that’, and I’d be like, ‘But this is the movie. This is a different experience, it’s an audience experience’.”

Niasari’s mother attended the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Shayda in January, where she participated in the Q&A discussions about the film.

“She really felt the love, she felt so seen,” she recalls. “And at the end of the festival, she hugged me and thanked me and said it was the best experience of her life, being there. And that was so touching to me. She deserves all the praise — what she’s been through, what she’s been able to overcome. She’s a doctor now, she has her own clinic, she’s got her PhD, she’s a really successful woman who’s been through a lot. I think it’s quite surreal for her to have her daughter make a film about her; it’s kind of meta.”

Calling her mother “incredible”, Niasari says that it’s been a joy to celebrate the film along with her.

“We’re here in Sydney doing some of the pre-release Q&As together. We’re in this hotel together, having breakfast, it’s really sweet!” she says. “You know, thinking about where this story started and how far we’ve come, we’re overjoyed to be able to ride this beautiful journey together.”

On Being Selected As Australia’s Submission for Best International Feature

Since 1996, Australia has submitted 16 feature films for consideration in the Academy Awards Best International Feature category. Of the 16, only the 2015 film Tanna was nominated.

Unlike other Academy Awards, the International Feature Film award is selected to represent the submitting country as a whole. This year, Shayda will be representing Australia, which Niasari describes as “kind of a dream come true”.

“I’m so proud, she says. “I’m so proud, and humbled. I grew up watching a lot of Iranian films, and films that were in that international film category, and I love arthouse international cinema, so yeah, I feel incredibly proud.

“We found freedom in Australia,” she continues. “Australia is our home, and this is an Australian film. Even though it’s about an Iranian mother and daughter starting a new life in a women’s shelter, the women’s shelter is so multicultural. The manager is Lea Purcell, she’s an Indigenous woman, and it’s like we’re all a guest in her house, and I think that’s so emblematic of this specific Australian experience. I’m just overjoyed that we’re able to represent the country in this way with this particular story.”

What Noora Niasari Hopes People Take From Shayda

With Shadya in cinemas now, Noora Niasari has put the story of her childhood out into the world.

“I hope that people take away a sense of hope, and joy, and just a deeper understanding of this experience,” she says. “For me, it’s very much a window into what it takes to survive domestic violence, and what it takes to find freedom in a new country, and to really revel in the strength of women.

“I’ve had audience members say to me at the end of a screening, ‘I just need to call my mum. I just need to call my mum!’. [It’s] a beautiful thing, being reminded of these beautiful women in our lives and how they shape us, and how we can learn from them. For me, it’s such a special experience to be able to give that to audiences.”

Shayda is in cinemas now.

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