Content Warning: references to domestic violence
When I hear the word “shelter”, I think of leaky tin roofs, and last resorts - a place to simply guard you from the storm. A place you wish desperately to leave. On the other hand, ‘home’ evokes thoughts of sanctuary, stability, tradition, warmth, and family. Though both words define a place to live, I do not often think of “shelter” and “home” as synonymous.
Australian-Iranian director Noora Niasari’s debut feature film, Shayda (2023), inspired by her own childhood experiences in a women's shelter, challenges this preconception.
The eponymous protagonist, Shayda, escapes with her daughter Mona from the abusive home her husband has created, seeking sanctuary in a Brisbane women's shelter. With time, she is able to establish her independence, experience genuine support from other women, and eventually find a true and safe home for herself and her daughter.
Shayda discovers the insecurity of not only her literal home, but also of her homeland, Iran, which she left, along with most of her family and friends, for new opportunity in Australia. For leaving her husband, she faces the real threat of arrest or harm if she were to return to Iran, shedding light on the present grim reality of women's rights in the country.
What was once “home” for Shayda and Mona is now a place of cold hostility instead of warmth, where the insidious misogyny embedded in so-called “tradition” reveals itself.
Although the film explores a niche Iranian feminist perspective, the plight of women and domestic violence in general is understood deeply and universally. This is supported by the diversity of the women in the shelter and the intercultural dialogues explored on screen. Though they each come from greatly varying cultures, they connect deeply through their shared experiences, love of music and dance, and love for their children.
Further, the film is so affective for its poignant, patient writing, understated visual style and stellar acting, especially by Zahra Amir Ebrahimi.
Shayda grips the audience with an immediately established tension, which continues very gradually building upon itself until the (literally) fiery climax, which, albeit distressing, holds enough restraint to leave the women with their dignity. Despite its slow pace, the runtime flew past me; I felt as if I breathed only once during the tense 1h 57m.
The mostly naturalistic, handheld cinematography with soft lighting and colour-grading creates a feeling of intimacy and delicacy that leaves space for the weighty narrative and themes to breathe without suffocation from overbearing style. However, there are moments that deliberately disrupt the easy style, reflecting Shayda’s panic and inciting a similar feeling in the audience. These moments occur notably often during dancing scenes.
Throughout the film, dance is a recurring motif of liberation, appearing more and more frequently and with more and more jubilation(!) as the women grow to support and trust each other, emancipate themselves from their abusers and establish a new “home” for themselves.
However, these scenes are often interrupted by Shayda’s panic; she imagines her husband is there, or he really is there, and so her sense of freedom, and expression of joy is instantly strangled. Even when he is not really present, the trauma he instilled in her, prevents her from embracing her own liberation, reclaiming and redefining what ‘home’ means to her.
Shayda stands out as one of my personal favourite films to come out in the last year, and I feel privileged to have been able to watch such a moving and personal story. All of my gratitude to the refreshingly young and very talented Noora Niasari. I’m biting my nails until more.