Shayda is writer/director Noora Niasari’s remarkable dramatic feature debut. This winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is deeply affecting. It’s a haunting portrait of courage and resilience. Skilfully maintaining an expert command of cinematic language, this first timer keeps the audience riveted with the dexterity of a veteran. Concentrating on the interior world of her titular character, she keeps the focus tight, astutely relying on the extraordinary lead performance of award-winning actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider).
The film offers an intimate view of this woman’s innermost private struggles over her own autonomy. Shayda (Ebrahimi) lives in a women’s shelter with her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) after having escaped her abusive husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami). Not only is she struggling to overcome her experiences, but she is trying to reclaim a sense of safety and normalcy, especially for her child’s sake. But Shayda must also contend with Hossein’s angry nature and, according to the terms set out in their separation agreement, must grant him unsupervised access to Mona knowing that he wants to return to Iran.
Niasari effectively builds tension throughout the film and, together with her lead, sustains an astonishing intensity. The filmmaker deftly takes us into Shayda’s world from the outset. Her camera follows Ebrahimi’s every move and this elementary strategy sets the tone for the film.
In the opening scene, Shayda coaches Mona in an airport in an effort to familiarize her with the setting so that the child knows who to turn to for help should she find herself alone there with her father. This is when Niasari establishes the force of Shayda’s overriding fears, as the character keeps looking over her shoulder. The jittery camera, with its extreme close-ups, establishes a necessary sense of disorientation.
As Shayda’s past experiences with her husband come to light, Niasari cleverly uses short, episodic scenes to illuminate her rising emotional strain. The more Shayda reveals, the more Niasari confines her actor within the frame. This is an absorbing strategy and is particularly effective when Shayda reveals the final traumatic incident that forced her to leave her husband. She must relive the event as she recounts the details to the investigator for the custody hearing. Not only does the camera remain on Shayda’s face but it eventually moves down to her feet. Even they are shaking by the time her testimony is over. The pain she cannot utter slowly, powerfully reveals itself.
Niasari’s tactics create a spare aesthetic that forges a bond between this character and the audience. Her simple approach allows her actor to shine and creates a sense of authenticity. The film provides insight into Shayda’s emotional reality and creates a visceral charge.
Shayda becomes a bold statement about a woman coming into her own despite her situation. Niasari creates a film of unnerving anxiety and rising pressure. One becomes immersed in the validity of this character’s existence. This is a film that lingers in the mind and in the heart: it’s a chilling experience.