Sundance 2023 Review: Noora Niasari’s “Shayda” Powerfully Outlines a Prison Without Bars

A visit to a Persian market is fraught with danger in “Shayda,” with its title character (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) racing as fast as she can to fill a basket before being noticed by anyone who might recognize her from the Iranian community in Perth, Australia, wearing sunglasses and darting about the store, passing on picking between the saffron selection of it means lingering for even a second longer than she has to. Her concern may be overstated – when the checker knows who she is, despite her best efforts, nothing comes of it, but nonetheless this paralyzing anxiety has been a part of her life ever since leaving her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) and taking their young daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) with her, not wondering if he’ll show back up in her life but when.

Writer/director Noora Niasari knows firsthand how chilling this could be when “Shayda” is based on being raised by a mother who lived in such fear, and though she might’ve been too young at the time to process then what happened to the family, she speaks to it now with remarkable emotional precision. The drama starts out with Mona given a tour through an airport, told by Joyce (Leah Purcell), the operator of a battered women’s shelter via her mother, how she should run to the officers in blue in the event of her father attempting to take her back to Iran. He isn’t a part of the picture when the film begins, but it feels like he’s holding the entire square frame, still having a powerful hold on every move Shadya makes – or doesn’t make, when she rarely leaves the shelter. That changes when a court order gives him limited visitation rights and it’s notable that he hardly appears as the monster he’s built up to be, a mild-mannered bespectacled medical student whose studies brought him and his wife abroad. Still, hints of his anger and entitlement come through on their very first reunion and it becomes clear that he needn’t act on his worst impulses for them to have an effect.

Although the centuries of patriarchal rule in Iran have clearly shaped men like Hossein — Shayda is well-aware that to return to the country would mean a certain death for defying her husband — Niasari is careful to acknowledge a tragedy equal to the stasis Shayda finds herself in when she and her daughter left their heart where they came from, not only unable to see relatives but ripped away from all the traditions that they found comfort in. Built around the annual celebration of Norwuz, the advent of a new year can bring as much melancholy as joy for Shayda, who tries to keep the Persian culture alive in her daughter’s life with dance lessons and food, though ultimately it may be an effort to keep connected to it when so many other parts of it have been made ugly for her. Amir-Ebrahimi is every bit as captivating as she was in her recent star-making turn in “Holy Spider,” unmistakably haunted by the past as Shayda but undefeated by it, and Zahednia proves to be a remarkable foil, clearly taking in some of what’s going on between her parents in spite of her mother doing her best to shield her from the details, and while “Shayda” becomes a portrait of unimaginable terror, Niasari impressively leaves the room to not be afraid of hope.

“Shayda” will screen again at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd at 5:50 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort, January 25th at 9 pm at Redstone Cinemas in Park City, January 26th at 5:25 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City, January 27th at 2:45 pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City.

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