When Noora Niasari was five years old, she lived in a women’s shelter with her Iranian mother. They were fleeing family violence in a country that wasn’t entirely familiar, trying to make a new life.
That personal experience has informed Niasari’s debut feature, Shayda, which has been storming the global festival circuit since it premiered at Sundance film festival in January, winning an audience award. Released in Australia on 5 October, the film has already claimed the top prize at CinefestOz, opened the Melbourne international film festival, and been selected to represent Australia in the international film category at the Oscars.
It’s a sensational reception for a first film, particularly given the specificity of its story: Shayda is a dramatisation of Niasari’s early life, set in the Iranian diaspora community of suburban Melbourne. “It was something I had experienced, but I hadn’t really seen on screen before,” Niasari says of the movie she started thinking about straight after finishing film school. “But I first had to ask my mum for her permission and participation, because I had such a blurry memory of that time.”
Niasari asked her mother to write her memoirs, which took six months; that writing formed the basis of the first incarnation of Shayda’s script. Shayda evolved over time – and it’s not always a direct mirror of what happened to them both – but “it is very emotionally true to our experience”.
Executive produced by Cate Blanchett, Niasari’s movie tells the story of Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), an Iranian immigrant in Melbourne who leaves her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) with her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) in tow. Shayda finds refuge in a women’s shelter where the kindly Joyce (Leah Purcell) protects and guides her through the tough legal process of a custody fight.
It’s a tender and revealing film that balances Shayda’s discovery of inner strength with the sacrifices she makes for her daughter, as she tries to create a new family for her. It’s understated, relatable and drawn from such personal memories that Niasara describes working on it as “long-term exposure therapy”. Even doing interviews to promote the movie is difficult. “I have to sit with it and process it,” she says.
“But the thing is, now that it’s a film, it has a really different energy in the world. People bring their own experiences to it, it’s a very universal experience. We’ve screened it in Europe, North America and Australia and there is a real sense that it connects beyond my mother and I, beyond our experience. It’s not about us any more. That feels liberating and cathartic.”
The world is seeing the strength of Iranian women now
After screenings, adult men have approached her with their own tales of growing up in shelters; other audiences have said they left with a deeper understanding of different Iranian women’s experiences.
It was important to Niasari to shade in light along with the darkness of family violence. Shayda’s story may be centred on escaping abuse and fighting for custody of her child, but it’s also about friendship, music, dance, laughter and reclaiming freedom. There’s something elementally hopeful about the film.
“I always wanted to find that balance in the story because … it’s life, there are ups and downs,” she says. A large part of the film is devoted to the character holding on to the rituals of Persian New Year, and finding a way to connect with her culture amid the upheaval.
“For her, that’s through music and poetry and dance, and sharing that with her daughter. It became fundamental to the story. That was how I grew up as well. We’re in the Australian suburbs but I lived in a Persian house with my mum’s cooking and music.
“I grew up with all of the beauty of our culture. So I had a natural inclination to include those moments [in the film]. You can feel the joyous moments even deeper when you have that tension or darkness around it.”
It has been a year since 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in custody, after being arrested for allegedly not complying with the country’s hijab laws. Her death led to a huge wave of popular unrest in Iran; Niasari hopes renewed international awareness of Iranian women’s resistance will lead to more stories being told.
“The world is seeing the strength of Iranian women now; it’s not just me looking at my mum in admiration. Shayda is just one of those women who happened to leave Iran and make her own sacrifices and her own life.
“It’s more and more important to showcase the diaspora experience as well, especially given what’s happening in the world with displacement, exile and migration due to conditions in the country. So, I’m really optimistic about the storytellers coming through and being able to tell a different kind of story.”
Shayda opens in Australian cinemas on 5 October