Earlier in the festival we watched Animalia, a Moroccan drama that attempted, in a mystical and intriguing way, to explore the complex relationship many Muslim women have with their faith, which has been for so long weaponized against them as a tool of the patriarchy, that rediscovering it and relearning what it means for them as individuals can be a process as gruelling as it is rewarding. Shayda is not as precisely focused on faith as Animalia was, but it does share many similarities with it as it tells its own story of a mother seeking her own power and emancipation within herself and through her relationship with her child.
Shayda is as much Aftersun as it is Animalia as well though, as it is a largely autobiographical portrait of a parent through the eyes of a child. Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress award for her daring lead role in Holy Spider last year) is the mother of six-year-old Mona (Selina Zahednia), and as we meet the two, she is taking Mona to the airport for some very important training. “If daddy brings you here, run away and find someone in a uniform” she tells her.
Shayda and Mona are living in a women’s refuge, having filed for divorce from her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), who is doing everything he can to make things very difficult for her. Weaponizing tradition, religion and propriety to poison those back home in Iran against her is easy, but actually taking Mona away from her will be tougher. The Australian courts have granted him visitation rights, but Shayda will fight to keep Mona safe from a man who clearly views the child only as a means to control the mother. As with most films dealing with domestic violence that are made by those with first-hand experience of it, Shayda largely refrains from direct portrayal, confident that the painful recounting of what happened is quite sufficient to convey Shayda’s reasons for wanting Hossein as far away from her and her daughter as possible.
Many scenes from Shayda may be familiar to many, abusers are mundane and so are their actions. Making matters both better and worse is that Shayda and Mona are co-habiting with three or four other families in the same situation, women who can’t take their children home and who are still menaced by angry men loitering in cars parked at the end of the street. As is so often the case, these women provide the support Shayda and Mona need to rebuild their lives, as their own community is split. Friends and family encourage Shayda to mend the rift or pass hateful glances at the woman who would be so cruel and improper as to take a man’s own daughter away from him. It’s with the diverse group of women at the shelter, and a potential new lover in the corny Canadian Farhad (Mojean Aria) that Shayda catches glimpses of the life waiting for her beyond Hossein’s grasp.
The film might not strike the same intensity or emotion as a film like Herself, which covered similar territory at the festival a few years ago, but there’s an intimacy and realism to the film’s approach that is very powerful in its own way. Some of the most affecting scenes draw from Mona’s perspective, showing her parents as she sees them, objects of love or fear, whose behaviour she can’t understand or predict from within her child’s level view of the world. But her dad frightens her, he’s mean to her mom, and won’t take her to see The Lion King despite repeatedly promising to do so. The film reflects its writer-director Noora Niasari’s grown-up understanding of what was going on with her parents back when she was little, and the brave candour her family shows is inspiring. I compared it to Aftersun and though the comparable thematic territory and even the mid ’90s setting make the comparison an apt one, Niasari’s film doesn’t have the formal and experimental grace or ambiguity of that film, it’s a much more conventionally told piece that relies upon its realism and the strength of the writing and performances for much of its power.
In that respect, Zar Amir Ebrahimi once again shows herself a compelling lead, projecting the same mixture of determination and fear that she did in her lauded role in Holy Spider, playing another woman doggedly facing down the forces of misogyny conspiring against her. This film also benefits from that added layer of faith and tradition I alluded to earlier. As an exilic and soon-to-be divorced woman Shayda is free to celebrate her culture and religion on her own terms, choosing how to express herself, what principles to embody, what to pass onto her daughter and what not to. This is of course, another freedom that Hossein recognizes as a threat and works to corrode. In this way, Shayda functions as a celebration not just of Niasari’s own mother, but of Muslim women as a whole. Those women who choose to practice their faith and keep their traditional alive, not because they’re being bullied into it by men, but because they take the same joy in it that we all do when we live as we choose and participate in our chosen culture. Shayda and Animalia both take the same approach to women and Islam, choosing to see the religion as something that can easily coexist harmoniously with women’s emancipation. It’s up to other Muslims to decide how persuasive they find this proposition. As an Atheist, I can quite clearly see why some women raised under Islam might turn their backs on their old church, but I am still heartened to see others celebrate the positive facets to their religion as they choose, while leaving those which do them no good far behind.