Sometimes it’s the littlest details that reveal the level of care and attention layered into a film. Like the Blossom-like floral hat worn by Selina Zahednia’s young Mona in Melbourne International Film Festival opener Shayda, which gently places us in a specific moment, even if you blink and miss the title card announcing that it’s 1995.
First playing in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience prize, and having its Australian premiere at MIFF last night, Shayda is a small film with a big impact. The debut feature of Iranian-Australian filmmaker Noora Niasari is a deeply affecting, semi-autobiographical retelling of her own story. Mona is a young Niasari, with Holy Spider lead Zar Amir Ebrahimi standing in for her mother in the title role. They find themselves in limbo, taken in by a Melbourne women’s shelter run by actor and fellow filmmaker Leah Purcell as the stoic Joyce.
They fear that Shayda’s estranged and abusive husband Hossein, played with unnerving menace by an against-type Osamah Sami (who we’re more accustomed to seeing in stand-up comedy gigs or romantic roles like Ali’s Wedding) will attempt to abduct Mona and return to Tehran once he has completed his medical studies in Melbourne.
In one of the film’s many quietly devastating moments of heart-aching restraint, we hear via a disembodied voice over the phone that, once again, the system has let them down. Hossein, despite the abuse he has meted out to Shayda, and the impact that has had on Mona’s tender heart, will be allowed weekend access despite being banned from calling her on the phone. Shayda is also warned that divorcing him could leave them penniless because of her tentative visa circumstances. Nor can she study psychology, as she has long dreamed of doing.
The story plays out in the time leading up to “Nowruz”, or Persian New Year. Cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh, Iranian-born and Australian-raised as with Niasari, captures several aching shots of the innately impressive Ebrahimi gazing mournfully at autumnal leaves. She longs for the first shoots of spring the celebration signals back home in Iran, even as she grasps that her only real future is now here in Australia if she can only extricate herself and her daughter from Hossein’s insidious grip. His escalating confrontations at the weekly handover in a non-descript shopping mall are no less frightening for their whispered hisses. Can Shayda hope for a new start in the gentle approaches of engineering student Farhad (Mojean Aria, underused), or will the cycle of violence refuse to let her live free, like the beautiful black cockatoo who visits her windowsill one bright day?
Niasari is assured enough to let her characters sit in heavy silences, pregnant with portentous fear but also a steadily growing resilience. If the occasionally awkward camaraderie of the women sharing the shelter could have been further teased out, and a dramatic third act occurrence passes by too fast, Shayda nonetheless holds our attentions through the sheer strength of Ebrahimi’s gaze. Zahednia, a young actor who delivers a performance nuanced beyond her years, is also remarkable in a role torn between the safety of her mother and the hard-to-let-go love of a bad father.
Produced by Vincent Sheehan and Nisasari, and executive produced by Cate Blanchett, Shayda is a welcome window into an Australian community we have not heard enough from on the big screen. It announces Niasari as a promising filmmaker with a gift for conveying internal thought with the surprising might of leaves whipped up in the breeze.
Shayda opened the Melbourne International Film Festival on Thursday, 3 August and screens throughout the festival in Melbourne and regional venues.