One of the most talked about films of Sundance 2023, Noora Niasari’s Shayda, connected with audiences and soon became a festival sensation. Representing Australia in this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar race (Sony Pictures Classics is handling domestic distribution and Cate Blanchett is on of the film’s executive producer), the film went on to rack up awards and garner acclaim on the festival circuit (read our TIFF review of the film here).
Based on the true story of her Iranian mother’s ordeal in Australia, and her own recollections as a child grappling with complex emotions and highly unusual circumstances, Niasari delivers a gut-wrenching story of resilience and strength while reflecting on how women and children process trauma. With striking performances from both Zar Amir Ebrahimi (winner of the 2022 Cannes Best Actress Award for the Danish Oscar entry, Holy Spider), Selina Zahednia who delivers one of the most brilliant child performances of the year and Osamah Sami who gives a pitch-perfect, chilling performance, Shayda manages to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout its entire runtime with suspense, emotion and drama as we follow the journey of a mother determined to escape an abusive husband and a shattering marriage.
Those familiar with the complexities of how women exist and have to find ways to survive in a male-dominant Middle East will certainly relate with the film, but even those unfamiliar with how the region’s legal framework is still designed to favor men with woman having a much loftier legal burden to prove their cases and have their plights heard, will certainly find themselves quite taken by this story.
I spoke with Niasari on her heartbreaking yet hopeful film, which is currently in limited release in the U.S., and the process of bringing it to life.
Mina Takla: Bringing your own story, and that of your mother’s, to life on screen must have been an interesting experience for you. I’d like to know more about how and when you decided to tell that story.
Noora Niasari : Making this film was the biggest artistic challenge of my career to date and I am beyond relieved that it is out there in the world now. How it started… It was 2017, I was 27, a few years out of film school and thinking about what my debut might be. I had written a few feature scripts but none of them felt right to pursue. But looking back now, even from the time I was a senior in high school at 15/16, I was doing oil paintings and drawings about my mother, so she has always been a source of inspiration. I knew that our story had so much heart and potential to bring to screen if it was done in an authentic, truthful way, but I wanted the majority of the film to be from the perspective of the mother character, rather than telling it all from a child’s point of view.
The first step was asking my mother how she felt about it – understandably one part of her was worried, but the other was excited. I remember her eyes lighting up before retrieving a small luggage she had never shown me – it was full of photos, letters and legal documents from that time. It was a treasure trove, and I saw that as an invitation to start this journey together. I asked her to write a memoir to fill in the gaps of my childhood memories. She spent six months on it, every night I would sit with her, and she would read passages to me, and I would translate them from Farsi to English. It actually tracked 10 years of her life, from her arranged marriage in Iran, migration to Australia and several years after our time in the women’s shelter.
It was a discovery for me every step of the way and also very cathartic for her to put everything on the page. In that period, we also took a mother daughter trip back to Brisbane, to all the places where our story took place which was a visceral experience and allowed us to dive a little deeper. At the end of that six-month period, I had this abundance of source material. And so I decided to travel far away, to a writer’s residency in Spain to spend time on my own to take it all in and write the first draft. And the rest is history.
MT: The film manages a difficult feat: bringing so much emotion without ever being miserablist or over the top. How did you control the film’s tone and was it deliberate to blend in moments of hope amidst the suffering that the two leads go through?
NN: I’m really happy to hear that. My intention was always to tell a story of survival and hope, rather than it being steeped in victimhood and despair. As a child who experienced that traumatic time, my fractured memories are of fear and anger, but equally, a sense of safety and love, especially in the period when we lived in the women’s shelter. The film is a testament to my mother’s resilience, to her spirit of survival and pursuit of freedom. And so there was always light, there was always music, poetry and dance, even in the darkest times. I was committed to capturing that balance of light and dark in the film in every aspect, from the screenplay to the costumes, to the location and lighting choices, but of course in the story itself, and framing it around the time of Persian New Year was key to landing a narrative structure that served this intention.
MT: Selina Zahednia (Mona) delivers a stunning performance in the film. I’d like to know your process of working with such a gifted young performer and how you managed to pull off such an impressive casting decision.
NN: Thank you, I am so proud of her. She did a remarkable job, and she is a remarkable child. I knew that from the moment she stepped into the audition room. Not only did she have a special spark and charisma, but she had an emotional intelligence beyond her years. Selina was only 6 but she was able to lock into situations with deep emotion, as though they were really happening. At the same time, she understood it was play, that it was acting. After a year-long search of 100 Farsi speaking Iranian girls in Australia, we had found our Mona. From there, my assistant and I devised a rehearsal plan over 8 weekends, just for Selina – all before she met Zar or any other cast and crew. We needed to prepare her, and ourselves, for finding substitute situations and ways of accessing her emotions without traumatising her with the actualities of the script. To this day, she doesn’t know what the film is really about, she just remembers it as a fun experience. To be honest, I could write an essay about our process of working with Selina – but in sum, it was an incredibly challenging and rewarding process. The film wouldn’t be what it is without her and Zar, their beautiful bond is what anchors this story.
MT: The film screened in several film festivals including Sundance and Toronto. How has been the audience response so far and what are the most interesting observations/feedback that you’ve received from audiences at film festivals?
NN: It has been a remarkable 12 month run for us. The audience response has been amazing, in every part of the world. Winning the Audience Award in Sundance, that’s when I realised this story is beyond my mother and I, it is everyone’s story. I remember an older woman from one of the Salt Lake City screenings, she was a local shelter worker and shared how the film spoke to so many survivors in her community, she had tears in her eyes when she gifted me a hand-woven scarf. Or in Melbourne, there was a teary Indian woman who had recently left her husband and said she wasn’t sure of her decision until she watched the film. In Locarno, I had a young Italian guy come up to me after the screening, he said he’d experienced domestic violence as a child but hadn’t found the words to articulate his experience until seeing Shayda. The turnout of young Korean women at the screenings in Busan was just beautiful and many of them expressed how they felt so seen by the film, there’s a rising feminist movement there, so it really hit a nerve. I got swarmed after screenings with many asking for my autograph, it was overwhelming. And I can’t even count the amount of times people have finished the film and said they wanted to call their mother. Shayda speaks to audiences everywhere, it’s become a vessel for healing, not just for women but for men too, of all different cultures and religions.
MT: Aside from it being based on your own story, what other challenges did you encounter while making the film?
NN: As I mentioned before, one of the biggest challenges was protecting our six-year-old child actor from the themes of the film. I never wanted to traumatise a child in the process of making this film, so it was my number one priority to protect Selina. I took on a very maternal role in that process, making sure certain things were not discussed in front of her, making sure that she didn’t know the content of some scenes, shooting her shots in a way that she would never know, and along with my assistant, ensuring the most sensitive approaches when needing to access her emotional world. Just navigating all of that and the restrictions around her time on set was hugely difficult – ie. We were only allowed 6 hours a day, 4 days a week with her, and we were shooting 10-hour days, 5 days a week. She is a co-lead alongside Zar who plays Shayda, so scheduling and finding those creative solutions every day was a feat.
Of course, the emotional & psychological toll for me went far beyond my expectations. I had done so much trauma therapy and processed so much in the writing of the screenplay over three years, so I didn’t think I would get triggered on set as often as I did, but the performances were just so good that I would get taken right back some days. And switching from a mind-frame of being triggered to being a director & a leader was my everyday challenge. I was so lucky with my cast who understood the rawness of it and held space for me, and me for them, as it wasn’t just me getting triggered or struggling to process trauma – it was hard for many who shared a history of domestic violence. We had a therapist on set for part of the shoot, but we needed her there the entire time – and so there was a duty of care that was absent due to budget restrictions and a lack of understanding about what was needed for this kind of production – so if I could turn back time, that is something I would have fought much, much harder for.
MT: The actresses in the film, particularly those residing in the shelter, had great chemistry together and were very believable and credible. Tell me more about your casting process for the film in general, and particularly for those supporting roles.
NN: I was heavily involved in the casting. I cast the main Iranian roles myself based on knowledge/friendships within the Iranian community and experience I had gained over several years of making shorts in the diaspora. For example, I had been friends with Osamah Sami for 10 years prior to casting him for Hossein, he was mostly doing comedic roles, but I knew he had so much potential to bring colour and dramatic nuance to this role because of what I knew of his life. Mojean Aria, I had met in LA while I was writing the screenplay, and I found him so charismatic and unique in his presence that I decided to rewrite the Farhad role specifically for him. I also took the lead in auditioning Zar and being in communication with her since she was based in France and was introduced by a mutual friend in actress Golshifteh Farahani.
The process I used with finding 6-year-old Selina was the same grassroots process I had used in my shorts, just at a much larger scale of targeting Persian Schools around Australia, rather than just Melbourne. Our Casting Director Anousha Zarkesh was a great sounding board and helped manage the outreach and hundreds of zoom self-tapes we received since we were still dealing with covid. But since Anousha was in Sydney, and most of the callbacks took place in Melbourne, I ran all of those audition rooms for major and minor roles with my assistant Asal.
And for the casting of the shelter women, my goal from the screenplay was to reflect the true diversity of Australian women’s shelters on screen. I had scripted a role for Vietnamese-Australian Jillian Nguyen who had acted in my last short film TÂM – and she was also a consultant for the Vi role to ensure it was authentic to the Vietnamese experience. Anousha helped me to find the remaining four women in the shelter, Cathy (Bev Killick), Lara (Eve Morey) and Renee (Lucinda Armstrong-Hall) and assisted with garnering the interest of actress Leah Purcell who plays Joyce. It was so important for me to have an Indigenous Australian woman in that role as the shelter manager, it’s like we are all guests in her house. Leah holds that fierce maternal role so beautifully – and I found out she is from the same part of Queensland as the real-life Joyce which was absolutely surreal!
In terms of the chemistry, I think it was firstly about casting, in every audition/callback I was really conscious of the different energies and personalities that each woman was bringing to the shelter – and made a lot of decisions around that, around what felt true to the era and to the experience. In the rehearsal period during pre-production, I coordinated with the costume and art department to have the shelter set ready with props in every character’s room and wardrobe. So, when all the women came together in that space for rehearsals, it felt lived in and they could experience it as their respective characters. We did a lot of activities to build a shared history and connection between them, for example they baked a cake in the shelter kitchen, they did Karaoke and Zar taught them how to do Persian Dance moves. It was a really organic process.
MT: Dancing plays a major role in the film’s quiet moments, where characters find a way to express themselves amidst an environment of fear and uncertainty. How was the choreography and rehearsal process for such sequences in the film and how much of it was improvised?
NN: Yes, it was absolutely vital to capturing that sense of light and hope for the characters. I know for Iranians, dance is almost a kind of therapy for us, it’s something we always return to, even in moments of uncertainty. In terms of choreography/rehearsal process – the only time we had a choreographer was for the nightclub scene. She was amazing because in addition to our characters, there were dozens of extras who needed guidance on 90s dance moves to be authentic to the era. She also beautifully guided Zar (Shayda) and Mojean (Farhad) to find their groove on the dance floor. It was one of the most enjoyable days on set.
For the Iranian dance sequences, I had pre-selected all of the music and we had done a little bit of exploring during pre-production to find the overall shape and feeling. But they were mostly worked out during on set rehearsals, working closely with my cinematographer to find the best ways in capturing the energy, beauty and poetry of those scenes. The actors had the space to improvise within a framework we found together. We had fun with it and I think it shows on screen. And honestly, they were a much-needed respite compared to the darker scenes in the film. Zar always said the dancing scenes with Selina were her favourite.
MT: Finally, I am curious if any of your family members, back in Iran, have seen the film and what was their response/reaction to it?
NN: My grandparents were visiting us in Melbourne from Iran back in August. I was lucky enough to have them attend the Australian premiere of Shayda at the Opening Night Gala of Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). A few weeks prior to the festival, I had hired a small cinema for a private family screening so that they could see it without the bright lights and crowds. My grandmother was sobbing through the credits, and it was a very emotional experience for her because she felt a lot of guilt and self-loathing for what we had gone through. She was asking so many questions that my mother had answered years ago, but it was as though she hadn’t processed things until she had this visceral experience in the cinema. It was powerful. I hugged her for the longest time and did my best to hold space for her and reassure her. She cried a lot at the MIFF screening too, but this time they were tears of joy and pride of seeing her granddaughter on a big stage and she also loved being acknowledged at the after party by strangers. She loves the film. She’s really proud.