Review by Jonathan Berk
Director Noora Niasari’s film Shayda isn’t technically a horror movie. However, it contains several moments scarier than films labeled as such this year. Niasari captures the horrors of escaping an abusive relationship and navigating the societal and legal struggles of divorce and custody. She also manages to capture the hope of the future, the power of possibility, and the love of a culture — even when it feels like that culture may not love you quite the same. Shayda is a powerful and affecting film with an equally impressive lead performance.
Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), an Iranian immigrant in Melbourne, is living with her young daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), in a women’s shelter led by Joyce (Leah Purcell). She is fleeing her abusive husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami), hoping to start a new life while protecting Mona, but the legal process of a custody fight and societal pressures may be too much.
Ebrahimi is a quiet powerhouse. She conveys so many emotions with just her body language and looks. In an early scene, Joyce and Shayda sit in a room on speakerphone, recounting an attack Hossein had inflicted upon Shayda. The camera work and the lighting make the moment feel intense, but it is Ebrahimi’s shaking and vacant look that conveys a plethora of emotions, as the details of the attack are still very real to her. She bursts out of the room, and the camera pans over to show her through the doorway. We can’t escape this, and we have to live in the moment, watching the fear flood out of her through this powerful early scene, showing the director and actor working together to deliver an affecting moment.
The film will be triggering for anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship or is the child of one. The first time Hossein is introduced, many will feel he seems like a man trying to win back his family. However, those with these past experiences will immediately sense the hostility boiling under that calm demeanor. Sami plays the role all too perfectly, and as the film moves on and Hossein feels his family gets further away, the true monster boils over. There are some truly haunting scenes in this film, and Zahednia’s reactions to them make them all the more troubling.
Despite the many upsetting moments, there are several moments of real joy. There is a great bonding moment over Mona’s new goldfish, Simba, and what he symbolizes as part of a Nowruz tradition. However, it’s hard to deny that the happy moments — like Shayda dancing or Mona getting a necklace — aren’t shadowed by the dark cloud that is Hossein’s existence. Much like a person fleeing a hostile situation, we are always looking over our shoulder; sure that at any moment, our optimism will be shattered by reality.
Niasari’s debut film is extremely personal and based on her own childhood upbringing. However, her story is one that many people can sadly relate to. There are many threads within it that audiences may attach themselves to. You may also, like myself, find that Shayda has embedded itself into your psyche as you watch it.
Shayda releases in theaters on December 1.