Shayda FILM REVIEW
Shayda is an immigrant Iranian in Australia hiding from her abusive husband at a women’s refuge. GARY STEEL reports on a sobering film.
If the subject matter of this incredibly, intensely cinema verité portrayal of an Iranian woman and her six-year-old daughter on the run from an abusive husband wasn’t so gruelling, I would have been tempted to award it a 10/10 rating. Truth is, it’s hard to find anything resembling “entertainment value” in Shayda, and even its fleeting moments of joy are quickly sent packing.
Which is, I realise, kind of the point. Loosely based on filmmaker Noora Niasari’s own experiences as an Iranian immigrant to Australia, she brilliantly captures the pervasive stress and frequent rising panic of fearing for her own life as well as that of her sweet child Mona. I’m sure that Niasari was very deliberate, also, in implicating Australia, a so-called “civilized” society that – despite efforts to the contrary – seemingly offers little protection from the kind of stone-age patriarchy that is still prevalent in Iran.
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Iranian-French actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi is utterly brilliant, and totally convincing, as Mona’s mother, Shayda. She’s beautiful and graceful and such a caring mother, but her eyes are haunted by her predicament, in which she finds herself in a women’s shelter with her child and having to fight for custody of Mona, even though her husband has raped and threatened to kill her (or even take her back to Iran, where she would likely be murdered). It’s impossible to even imagine such a predicament and even the relatively mundane social and domestic scenes in the refuge are packed with tension, because they could be discovered by one of the abusive males at any moment.
The film is intensely personal, rather than making any great political or societal points. For all intents and purposes, we are Shayda and/or her daughter during the movie, feeling their fear and their struggle to find a solution to the interim situation in which they’re stuck. And every time there’s a slight tension release – a chance for the characters to dance or simply have a bit of fun – you just know that there are going to be consequences. And in Shayda’s case, she can’t even consort with former friends and relatives and members of her own community, because so many of them favour the man. Even phone conversations with Shayda’s own mother in Iran confirm that she thinks Shayda should go back to her husband Hossein (who is convincingly threateningly played by sometime standup comic Osamah Sami!)
Shayda is an excellent portrait of a mother under unbelievable stress, but I fear that the very people who need to see the film – the ones who fail to understand the utterly precarious situation a woman often finds herself in as the result of spousal and cultural conditioning – won’t do so. In other words, it risks preaching to the congregation.
Having said that, it’s a worthy endeavour and hopefully, it will provide further ammunition for the vulnerable and victimised to make their case for better protection. And yes, it’s a damn good film.
+ Shayda screens at independent cinemas from 26 October.