Sundance 2023: Shayda Movie Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Noora Niasari

Writer: Noora Niasari

Cast: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Selina Zahednia, Osamah Sami, Leah Purcell

Screened at: The Ray, Park City, UT, 1/19/23

Opens: January 19th (World Premiere)

Recognizing an abusive relationship is not an easy thing, but for many, what comes after can be even more difficult. Exiting an unhealthy dynamic is often a sudden and uncertain process, and the support of friends and family throughout is crucial. When members of a person’s community turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing and presume that someone is just not trying hard enough to make it work, any hope of healing or future safety may be unattainable. Shayda demonstrates this upsetting phenomenon in its portrait of a mother determined to protect her daughter and not to return to her controlling and manipulative husband.

Writer-director Noora Niasari, in her feature film debut, takes inspiration from her own young childhood, living in a women’s shelter in Australia with her mother after she left her father. Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) does whatever she can to maintain a normal life for her six-year-old daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), while Joyce (Leah Purcell) helps her to document her case and translate the testimony she has given into Farsi. Shayda is hesitant to take Mona out to see people they know since she is all too aware of how her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) has convinced them that she is nothing more than a disobedient wife. 

The events of this film begin with Shayda and Mona already living in a shelter, where their housemates include a range of social and antisocial personalities. Shayda’s written recollection of her experiences is more than potent enough to convey what she has been through, and the immediate shudder and discomfort that runs through her whenever she sees Hossein intensifies it. There is no doubt in her mind that he is not capable of change, and that any claims that he can are simply desperate attempts to get her to retract her statements and return to him. When she is forced to meet him after he is granted visitation rights, she doesn’t let any of his warped and pointed comments slide, fully cognizant of his intention in every remark.

This film’s depiction of the Iranian community in Australia underlines how tradition and faith are often leaned on to uphold destructive behavior. Hossein’s desire to be reunited with his wife is seen as superior to anything Shayda might claim, and he as the husband has the sole right to grant her a divorce. The opening scene of the film, in which Joyce brings Shayda to the airport to train her on what to do if her father tries to take her out of the country and back to Iran, has chilling implications since there would certainly be no practical recourse if he took that action. Shayda’s cultural identity also does her a disservice at the shelter, where another temporary resident dismisses her desire to come dancing because it’s not her type of music.

Amir-Ebrahimi was awarded the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for her excellent turn as Rahimi, a persistent journalist tracking a serial killer in Holy Spider. This role gives her equally strong material, and she gives a performance that is radically different but just as compelling. While Rahimi spoke her mind at every juncture even though she knew no one wanted to hear from her, Shayda is more reserved, aware of how she is seen within the Iranian community and also of her status as an immigrant to a country that isn’t always as welcoming as it should be to foreigners. But despite that deliberate nature, she is resolute in her efforts to keep her daughter safe and to not give in to her husband’s attempts to shame her into coming back to an extremely toxic and harmful relationship. In her film debut, Zahednia handles the adult material exceptionally, and Sami portrays Hossein as a man who would like to see himself as a devoted father but lets his own ego get the best of him to be anything but that. Niasari has made a deeply personal film that remarkably captures its protagonist’s harrowing journey and pays tribute to all victims of abuse who are able to take a daring stand. 

117 minutes

Story: B+

Acting: A-

Technical: B+

Overall: B+

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