Noora Niasari on Finding Beauty in Resilience in “Shayda”

At one of the first screenings of “Shayda” at the Sundance Film Festival, Noora Niasari could sense it was up to her to let the audience know they could breathe again. You could cut the tension with a knife as the writer/director unveiled her feature debut, reflecting on the experience of growing up in a women’s shelter in Australia where her mother took cover from an abusive husband who used their status as Iranian immigrants to keep them within his reach even if local authorities deemed him a threat, and while at times it may not have been easy to watch, it had to be even harder for Niasari to make, recounting during the Q & A how she had to have a therapist on set at times and faced the unenviable task of reproducing traumatic scenes from her family’s past.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” the filmmaker said with a knowing smirk that was greeted with a hearty laugh from the crowd, an unburdening for both that Niasari would say she also experienced as the process of excavating these memories for dramatization would be the start of letting them go. From “Shayda,” it becomes clear that the director inherited both her good humor and her bravery from her mother, played in the film fearlessly by “Holy Spider” star Zar Amir Ebrahimi, and rather than wallow in the bleakest moments they shared together, the film shows Shayda’s admirable resolve to protect her six-year-old Mona (Selina Zahednia) from having to grow up too quickly, able to distract her somewhat from the anxiety she has over the threats of her husband’s return with the impending celebration of the Persian holiday of Nowruz.

While Niasari’s personal experience gives an undeniable authenticity to “Shayda,” she also reveals herself to be an extraordinarily skilled filmmaker, able to tell the stories of so many other women passing through the shelter where Shayda and Mona find a respite while making room for her own. Matching the compassion of the shelter’s manager Joyce (Leah Purcell), the film observes guests make a lasting impression as they come and go, all attempting to restart their lives as they find themselves at a literal waystation and while rarely giving time to the abusers they’ve fled from, the psychic toll they’ve taken remains palpable as the women try to move on. Just as Niasari and her mother once found a sense of community amongst those they shared rooms with, “Shayda” opens the door to an even greater one as it starts to make its way into theaters where it is bound to make anyone audience feel less alone in any experiences they might’ve had with abusive relationships and with the film opening in Los Angeles and New York this week for an Oscar-qualifying run in advance of a broader release in early 2024, the filmmaker spoke about how she was able to come around to seeing her painful past as a piece of art, involving her mother in the creative process and make a film so dramatically propulsive but entirely naturalistic.

When it’s a personal story like this, was there something that made this the right time to take it on? From what I understand, it may be the first in a trilogy.

Yeah, the story always lived inside me since I was a child, but it was around five years ago that I decided to take on this story as a filmmaker. The first step was getting my mother on board because obviously it’s not just my story, but our story and I asked her to write a memoir to fill in the gaps of my childhood memories. That was really the basis of the first draft and it really grew from there. But I just felt really compelled to to capture this world. I was five years old when I lived in the women’s shelters and it’s something that I hadn’t seen before and isn’t talked about enough in terms of women escaping domestic violence and also finding hope in that situation. And my mom has always been an inspiration to me, having this strong woman in my life and I had a feeling that it would be something that would resonate with people. But it’s been a really difficult journey making the film because of the personal nature of it. It’s a part of a trilogy about Iranian women, but the subsequent films are not personal in nature, so this I would say was the hardest, and I’m glad that I did it first in a way.

At Sundance, I can recall you sharing a story about how in the edit, your producer reminded you that this film was about celebration and of course, Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is at its center. Was that important to build around?

Yeah, that was fundamental in the screenwriting. I think it was in the second draft that I introduced that because I really wanted to frame the story around the light and the hope and Shayda and Mona finding their sense of identity and also really reclaiming their culture in such a dire situation where they’re being expected to live a certain way. It’s really about [Shayda] rewriting her destiny, and Nowruz is all about new beginnings and spring and new life, so it just felt like a beautiful, symbolic framework for the film.

When your mother gave you these memoirs, whether there was anything that gave this shape that you didn’t know beforehand or changed your ideas of what this could be?

The memoir tracked ten years of her life, from her arranged marriage in Iran through to many years post-shelter, so there was enough for ten feature films in there. But I really wanted to set the majority of the film in the shelter and be very present in that world and that experience, so the details that she shared with me about living in the shelter, about the women she encountered, and things that my father did or didn’t do about the access visits, all of those details were invaluable to the screenwriting process. I also had the real life Joyce, the shelter manager, involved in the process too. She’s like my godmother and we’ve been friends with her for 30 years, so some of her stories fed in as well and it’s really an amalgamation of fact and fiction.

When the shelter has all these people coming and going, did that make it more difficult to crack narratively?

It was definitely a balancing act in the edit because the first rough cut was three hours long. We had a surplus of material and [full] story arcs of the women because the screenplay did go a little bit deeper in each one’s story. But it was really about anchoring the film in Shayda’s experience and how those friendships are able to support that and also shed light on the fears and the universality of the experience because it’s not just Shayda who’s fleeing violence. It’s women from all different cultures. It’s not just an Iranian woman. It’s a British woman, a Vietnamese woman, an Australian woman, and they’re all from different socioeconomic backgrounds, so showing the context of the situation was also really important. It’s also just the reality of domestic violence and how it affects people, but the female friendships and the way that they support each other is also a really strong fabric of the film.

What sold you on Zar to carry this?

It’s kind of inexplicable, but the power of her presence on screen. I really felt it from the very first take that I saw of her. She has this incredible vulnerability, but at the same time, this stoic presence as well and she also brought so much emotionality to the character and was able to really make it her own. It was incredible working with her. I brought her all the way to Australia from Paris, and it was during COVID as well, so it was a hard process. But she’s a pro’s pro and I’m so honored to have developed this character with her.

How much did you want to give of your personal story versus allowing her to create her own performance?

My mom was really generous. She spent time with Zar, and we shared some of some court tapes and some documents, and the memoir and she took what she needed to take from the material. As a director, it’s really important for me to allow my collaborators to find the character or the the truth for themselves and bring that to the experience because I didn’t want to make like a documentary about our life. The character starts from a real place in terms of our life, but she brought so much to it, and [Zar] always had ideas for every scene. She would make suggestions that were wonderful and sometimes she would challenge me, and that’s a part of the creative process. That just makes the work stronger when the actors bring their own take on the character.

I’ve heard you had workshops with Selina, who plays Mona. Once you started to see their dynamic together, does anything take this in a direction you didn’t expect?

Their playfulness was something that I really leaned into in the shooting process. It wasn’t that it wasn’t part of the script, but there was such a beauty and joy in in that connection that they had, that I really embraced it when we were shooting because it just shows the depth of their bond. That was a beautiful surprise, and I think in the film, the audiences feel their bond through that excitement that they have when they see each other. In between takes, they would play, and then I would be like, “Just keep doing that” and we’d start rolling and that would make it into the film. It was very organic.

The lighting in general has a really nice touch to it as well. Was it difficult to get the emotionality of it without being heavy-handed?

Yeah, my cinematographer did a beautiful job capturing the naturalism of the environment, which was our intention. But it was also about finding these pockets of light in situations. There’s a lot of silhouettes, a lot of shadowing and and also it was so much about the location choices and what they were bringing to the lighting and the cinematography. The scene where Shayda is going down into this kind of arcade, which is dark, and then she’s coming back up the stairs into the light is an example of how thematically the lighting and the locations came together. But the shelter as well I wanted to feel both warm, but also [somewhat] claustrophobic at the same time, [being] shut off from the rest of the world. It was a real collaboration, finding all of the elements to find the balance of light and dark in the film.

What it been like to just start getting off your shoulders and out into the world?

It’s been a really cathartic experience, I have to say. Screening at Locarno in the Piazza Grande [where] there were 8000 people in a plaza in the middle of Switzerland, this beautiful town, and being on stage talking to that many people, I’ve never felt so seen in my life. Honestly, that moment was like truly spectacular. And the catharsis comes from that. It comes from sharing with audiences and feeling their emotions in the crowd and then having them respond afterwards. That’s always a beautiful thing and I’m really grateful that that process is happening now.

“Shayda” opens for a one-week awards qualifying run on December 1st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Village East before expanding in 2024.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.