The tenacity of a mother’s love provides the strong foundation for writer / director Noora Niasari‘s “Shayda,” a harrowing portrait of an Iranian woman who is doing her best to make the most of a terrible situation. This intimate story is one of female empowerment and endurance in a cultural system that often treats females as second class citizens.

Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) is a young mother who, with her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) has fled her horribly abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) and moved into a women’s shelter in Australia. Shayda has bravely filed for divorce and is now an outcast in her own community. Constantly living in fear yet seeking a fresh start for herself and her daughter, Shayda struggles to provide a safe, calm, and normal home for her child. The two are getting by fairly well and enjoying their newfound freedoms until they get the troubling news that a judge has granted Hossein visitation rights. A dangerous situation is created when he reenters their lives and begins spending more time with his child, which causes Shayda to live in constant fear that Hossein will try to kidnap Mona and take her back to Iran.

Niasari’s story explores the trauma of a sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive relationship and celebrates the sheer perseverance that one woman possesses when it comes to protecting her daughter from harm. This female-focused film addresses the cultural norms of Shayda’s home country of Iran, a place where women live with a lack of legal autonomy and have weak protections from serious things like domestic violence, and when they push back against discriminatory practices and laws, they are often arrested or given death sentences. It’s sad and infuriating how women are treated, especially those who are seeking a divorce. Niasari effectively expresses the agony, horror, and vulnerability that a soon-to-be single mother must deal with in order to liberate herself from a life of maltreatment.

Amir-Ebrahimi gives a strong performance in the lead role, and she expresses a universal empathy and determination that is inspiring. Equally effective are Zahednia as a frightened innocent, and Sami as a charmer of an abuser who swears he’s changed (thankfully, Shayda knows better).

“Shayda” is a solid drama that’s politically-minded, timely, and engaging. It can be tense and difficult to watch at times, but as the titular character begins living life on her own terms, things that once felt menacing now seem liberating.

By: Louisa Moore

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