Noora Niasari was only five when she and her mother moved into a women’s shelter in Australia, fleeing domestic violence. That experience is the heart of “Shayda,” Niasari’s debut feature starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won best actress in Cannes last year for “Holy Spider.” She plays the titular character, an Iranian immigrant in Australia trying to divorce her abusive husband (Osamah Sami) and build a life with her daughter (Selina Zahednia). The film premiered in January at the Sundance film festival, where it won the Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic.
Niasari spoke to us about “Shayda,” which is Australia’s Oscar submission for international feature.
How did you decide to make this film based on a period of your life?
I was five years old when we lived in a women’s shelter, and it was an experience that always stayed with me. As I became a filmmaker, I knew that this is a story I had to tell, and I felt a sense of responsibility to capture this world in an authentic way. It’s very rare for a survivor of domestic violence to make a film about it. But also, I was always so inspired by my mother and her strength and resilience and ability to break away from what was expected from her, to give us freedom, to give us the opportunities that I have now. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if it wasn’t for her pursuit of freedom. And obviously, I wanted to shine a light on women in these situations, which is a global, universal issue, domestic violence. It’s not specific to Iranian women. It’s all women.
Your movie makes that point
You have your memories that surely informed the screenplay. What else did you draw on for research?
I asked my mom to write a memoir, and that was a really amazing source for writing the story, but I also engaged this woman Deirdre, who’s like a godmother to me. And she’s the real-life [counterpart to] Joyce, the shelter manager [played by Leah Purcell]. So she’s been in our life for over 30 years now. And I had many, hours of phone calls with her while I was writing the screenplay because she’d worked in women’s shelters for 25 years and had a breadth of knowledge and experience about all the different kinds of women, all the different kinds of situations. And so a lot of her experiences are also weaved into the screenplay. Every single one of the women is either based on someone that she encountered or my mother encountered, so it’s all really based in truth.
And for me, it was really important to show that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate — you know, race, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds, age. There’s an older woman in the shelter; it just goes to show how hard it is for women to break away, no matter what stage of their life they’re in. And the other thing is, for me, it was really important to emphasize because it’s not only affecting immigrant women or people in poverty. So showing a myriad of women, but also the different personalities because I remember there was some tension in the house, but also camaraderie and sisterhood because even though they’re all from different backgrounds, they’re all united by this feeling of escaping trauma and fighting against the patriarchy. And so there’s an inherent connection that’s unspoken between the women and that’s something I really wanted to capture as well.
Finding actors to play your mother and your younger self must have been a singular experience.
Absolutely. I searched around for a year for Shayda in Australia and I couldn’t find her, so I started looking internationally. I shared the script with a French-Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, and she’s the one who recommended Zar. It was before “Holy Spider” — it hadn’t come out yet; she hadn’t won Best Actress at Cannes. Within the first 10 seconds [of her audition tape], I knew she was Shayda. It was the duality of her strength and vulnerability and her ability to speak volumes with her gaze. And also, with her life experience, she brought so much of that to the role because she’s been through so much trauma herself, being exiled from Iran and having to rebuild her life in France [In 2008, after a sex tape in which she purportedly appeared was leaked, she feared for her safety and fled her home country.] And so she brought a lot of a lot of nuance to the character. [After Cannes], I was worried that she wouldn’t make “Shayda” because I was like, Why would she come to Australia for this film? [Laughs] But no, she did. She was really humble.
And Selina, it was a challenge to find a 6-year-old, Farsi-speaking Iranian-Australian girl. I got girls from Persian schools all around Australia to submit casting tapes, and of the 100 girls who submitted, Selina was one of the callbacks from Melbourne. I was just astonished by her emotional intelligence. At the same time, she was such a happy child — she didn’t come from a divorced family and she’s never experienced anything close to [the situations depicted in] this film. So much of my responsibility was protecting her from the themes of the film and creating a framework to allow her to do her best work without really knowing what it’s all about. It was my priority not to traumatize a child in the process of making the film.
The scene in which Shayda cuts her hair is so rich in symbolism. She’s reclaiming her autonomy. Where did that idea come from?
It’s partly inspired by real life, but also, I love the symbolism of, as you say, reclaiming her autonomy and how she wants to be in the world. And because of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that happened (in Iran in 2022), the hair cutting has even deeper significance. When we were editing the film, it was really the height of the revolution. I think it really speaks to a moment that we’re in, but it’s also timeless: a woman taking control of her appearance and wanting to live life on her own terms.
The movie has resonated with so many different audiences around the world. Since it is such a personal story, did you imagine this kind of response?
I didn’t expect the response it’s had. Honestly, I was so in the moment, I was just day-to-day wanting to make a good film and wanting to make a truthful film that was authentic and that spoke to me and the people on my team. The way it’s been received has been incredible. My mom never imagined that. I remember being at Sundance with her, and she did some Q&A’s with me there. And there were so many people that came up to her and me, crying — and not just women, but men, people from all different cultures. Just feeling this connection with complete strangers, it was a real cathartic moment for us and continues to be. I was in Korea, Canada, I’m going to Indonesia this week.
I think people feel really seen by the film because domestic violence thrives in silence and to see it on screen in such a way, I think people feel empowered by it. It’s been an amazing roller coaster. I remember when my mother was leaving Sundance, she hugged me and thanked me and said it was one of the best experiences of her life. It’s really been a huge healing journey for both of us. I haven’t seen my mum have such a lightness in her step until lately; I feel like there’s a weight that’s been lifted, which is a beautiful thing and definitely a reward for all of the blood, sweat and tears of making a film like this.
A version of this story first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the International issue here.