Shayda – Interview with Film Writer/Director Noora Niasari

Interview - Shayda - Director Noora Niasari
Sony Picture Classics/Madman Entertainment
In the past few years, Iranian cinema inside and outside the country has seen a cinematic boom with films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone and Holy Spider. Shayda now carries the torch with an intimate and touching story of mother-daughter love. Set in Australia, the film follows Shayda, a recent Iranian immigrant who is living in a woman's shelter with her six-year-old daughter after having filed for divorce from her abusive husband. Chosen as the official 2023 Oscar submission for Best International Film by Australia and produced by Cate Blanchett, Shayda has received praise for its empathetic storytelling and brilliant performances. Noora Niasari, the film's writer/director spoke with Borrowing Tape to discuss the current Iranian protests and the timeless nature of this story of liberation.

SHAYDA opened for a one-week run in NY and LA and will open in theaters nationwide in early 2024.

Listen to the interview and read the transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:

Hi, I'm Sofia Sheehan of Borrowing Tape. I'm here today with Noora Niasari, the director of the Sundance drama. Shayda, I just want to congratulate you, I really loved it. I thought it was such an intimate and touching mother/daughter story.

Oh, thank you so much.

And I know Shayda is based on your childhood. How did you decide what you're going to take out, what you're going to fictionalize, and what you're going to spotlight?

Yeah, so it's inspired by my mother and I's experience of living in an Australian women's shelter when I was five years old, and I had very fractured memories of the time being five years old and being the situation that it was. So I asked her to write a memoir and that tracked around ten years of her life, and she spent around six months working on that. And with my guidance, we had a lot of tough conversations over that time, but it was incredibly important to me to have her perspective front and center of the film.

And so, I took that memoir — it was around 50,000 words — to Spain and wrote the first draft. The first draft was very close to our experience and had a completely different structure to the film that you see now. But over the course of three years, it was about finding the dramatic potential of the narrative beyond our experience. So I would say that it's emotionally true, and emotionally autobiographical, but there's a lot of fictional elements that make it a piece of cinema.

And I noticed the movie takes place in the 90s. But you don't overload it with a lot of 90s nostalgia. You're not playing the top 100 hits. A lot of the clothes seem kind of timeless. Was this intentional to kind of make it seem like it could happen any decade?

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I'm so glad that came across. That was definitely my intention, and I set it in the 90s because, obviously, the specificity of that time, the context of the community, like the makeup of the Iranian Australian community at the time, really sets the scene. The divisions and this notion of Shayda breaking away and finding freedom, it was more fraught at that time, and so there were more obstacles for her. And also women's shelters. Only recently, actually, since the year around the 2000s, did they become less communal. And I wanted to capture this sense of women sharing space together and holding space for each other. And with regards to the 90s element, obviously, I'm a 90s kid as well, so Lion King, the music, the fashion, all of it was nostalgic for me, and I'm sure for many audiences, too.

But the thing is that women escaping domestic violence, it's still a very challenging issue all over the world. And I think that that's part of the timelessness o the film, is that we're still facing these issues every single day. No matter where I've screened the film, whether it was in Korea, or Switzerland, or Canada, it's something that resonates because it's very real for people.

Yeah. And what's great about this movie it's obviously the Australian submission for Foreign Language Film and represents an Australian film, but it's also very representative of Iranian women everywhere. I know that post-production was when the revolution started going on. How do you feel about representing these two cultures in one movie? Is it a bit daunting?

I mean, in a way it's a privilege because we're shining a light on Iranian women all over the world and Shayda is just one of millions of women fighting for freedom and fighting for independence from this patriarchal society. And while we were in post-production, it was right at the beginning. I was having a very hard time recovering from the shoot. I was in a dark place and my editor and I, she's also an Iranian woman, were working really hard. But it wasn't until the women's revolution started to take shape in Iran that I found the motivation to really finish the film in the time that we did. It really gave me that courage to come out of my dark place to finish the film because I was seeing what women were doing in the streets in my home country, and I was like, what I'm going through is nothing compared to that. And I have agency with this film, and we have to finish it as soon as we can. So that was kind of the process and how it linked. And it was phenomenal, the parallels that were happening, like in the scene where she's cutting her hair, and that was a constant motif and visual that we were getting from Iran in terms of women taking a stand and finding agency in how they wanted to present themselves. And I think that the film yeah, it speaks to that larger issue, but it's also, as you said, timeless. And hopefully, it'll be such in years to come as well.

Yeah, definitely. The haircutting scenes for me kind of jumped out. How long was principal photography, and when did you shoot?

We shot in July/August of last year, 2022. And we had a six-week shoot, 30 day shoot. And it was very whirlwind and challenging, especially because we were working with a six-year-old child and the restrictions around working with a child actor.

And I know this is your first feature film. You've done short films before, but how is this experience different? And also, not only is this your first film, but Cate Blanchett is an executive producer. How does that change things?

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I've been working toward this point my whole career. Since I was 19. I've been making short films, documentaries, film school mentorships, you name it.

So it's something that I've been working towards. I guess the reason why was so different is because I didn't anticipate how psychologically and emotionally challenging it would be to tackle this particular film — given it's inspired by my childhood trauma, and it was very triggering at times. So, I would say that that was the biggest challenge for me. And also, it was about protecting Selina, who plays Mona, the child actor, from the themes of the film. I took a really maternal role. So those were kind of the main challenges in making my first feature and having incredible experience behind me in Vincent Sheehan, in Cate Blanchett, in Dirty Films. It was an absolute privilege. And them being in my corner and being champions of the film. And now Sony Pictures Classics. distributing it. It's a wonderful vote of confidence both in the film and in its capacity to reach audiences worldwide.

Another thing. You mentioned the young actress, but Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who recently did Holy Spider, and all this critical acclaim behind her. How did you convince her to take on the role, and what was it like working with her? Because she's phenomenal in the movie.

She is. I'm so proud of the work she did. Yeah. we searched all of Australia for Shayda, and we couldn't find her, so we started an international search, and Zar actually put down a tape. Surprisingly, it was before Holy Spider. Before she won Cannes for Best Actress. And as soon as I saw her tape within the first ten seconds, I knew she was Shayda. It was just one of those instinctual moments for me because she has this incredible duality of vulnerability and strength and the way that she expresses emotion just through her eyes. And it's just phenomenal how her screen presence just transcends. And yeah, from the very first meeting that we had, we had a deep connection, and that just got more and more solidified as the process went on. And I learned so much from her. She challenged me, I challenged her. We had a very beautiful creative collaboration and continued to be friends and sisters. I think that our connection. And also her connection with my mum, who was part of that pre-production process, helping Zar access whatever questions she needed about the character. It was kind of like a sisterhood making a film.

Wow, that's great to hear. I also want to know if there are any particular films or directors that inspire you in general or the film?

Yeah,  some of the touch points in the writing process were Asghar Farhadi's films. The moral ambiguity in the way he captures Iranian characters. He always says that there's no good or bad and I wanted to emphasize that this is not a black-and-white situation. You know, that every character, even the father character, who's quote-unquote, "the antagonist," he's a human being, and there's a lot of depth to his point of view as well. And I really didn't want to make something cliche. So I took a lot of inspiration from him — in terms of the cinematography and the female subjectivity of the film.

Andrea Arnold's films were a real touch point for me and my cinematographer, especially. And yeah, I would say those were the two main sources. But I love [Pedro] Almodóvar and the color that he brings to a situation, and the sisterhood that's created on screen. I wanted to capture those things as well in the women's shelter world.

And are there any themes and subject matters that inspire you as a filmmaker?

I would say that notions of identity, belonging, displacement, but also female empowerment and finding light in the darkness. These are the kinds of things that I'm drawn to.

And a final question. What do you want audiences to take away from the film when the credits roll?

A sense of hope and a deeper understanding of women escaping domestic violence and their bravery and courage.