‘If I went back to Iran today, I’d be in prison’: Why Noora Niasari’s ‘Shayda’ is a ‘drop in an ocean of change’

Five years ago, Noora Niasari asked her mother to write a memoir to fill in the gaps in some fuzzy childhood memories. The Iranian Australian director was just five years old when her mother fled an abusive relationship, leaving her entire community to raise Niasari alone in a foreign country.

An early draft of “Shayda,” which opens the World Dramatic Film Competition at Sundance on Friday, was based on that memoir and traces the life of Niasari’s mother from her arranged marriage in Iran as a teenager to her quest for independence. in Australia with his son. The resulting film stars the breakout “Holy Spider,” Zar Amir-Ebrahimi as Shayda, and Selina Zahednia as her daughter Mona.

“There are many fictional elements in the current version of the film, but it is very much rooted in the emotional truth of our experience,” says Melbourne-based Niasari. Variety.

Backed by Screen Australia and produced by Cate Blanchett’s Dirty Films, “Shayda” is the director’s first feature film and follows a string of acclaimed shorts, including “Tâm”, “17 Years and a Day” and “Simorgh”. The director says she had to work up to “Shayda,” both technically as an artist and emotionally as a daughter still processing her past trauma.

That pain, however, would only deepen in the fall when, while “Shayda” was being edited, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Iran, after being arrested by Tehran’s morality police for using a hijab “inadequately”. ”

Noora Niasari (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute)
Keiran Watson Bonnice

Amini’s death sparked a revolution in Iran, now known as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, which has seen women give up their hijabs in public and even destroy them in protest, only to face violent rebukes and sometimes , deadly by the regime. . More than 500 people have been killed so far as part of the street protests, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.

Niasari hopes that “Shayda,” one of three films by directors of Iranian descent showing at Sundance (the others being “The Persian Version” and “Joonam”), will be a “drop in an ocean of change.” While no demonstration of any kind has been planned for Park City yet, the director says industry panels will address the situation and its impact on human rights and film.

“I don’t see it as something that’s going to create monumental change, I’m very realistic about the situation, I just hope it’s a way to amplify and support what’s happening in Iran.”

Read on for Niasari’s full interview.

You’ve done a number of shorts before this feature. Why was this the right time to make this movie?

I didn’t feel ready. I felt like we were making shorts, documentaries, traveling, working, being in writers’ rooms, doing assistant directors. All these things were steps to do my job. And at the same time, I needed to process some things in my personal life to be ready to make this movie, because it was very challenging, emotionally and psychologically. I don’t know if I would have had the ability to do it before.

When exactly did you shoot?

In July and August 2022.

Oh, wow. So, have you seen Zar in “Holy Spider”?

Well, actually, I hadn’t. I saw the movie before shooting it, but when I cast Zar, it was before Cannes. It was in February 2022. She was introduced to me as a potential candidate for Shayda. We looked everywhere, and I’m so thankful I met Zar because as soon as I saw the first audition for him, I knew he embodied the character. The duality of her vulnerability and strength really hit me and I knew she was Shayda.

When did Cate Blanchett and her producer join?

They got involved towards the end of this stage of development, just before we went to market with the script. One of the producers sent the script to [Blanchett] because I had worked with her on a movie called “Little Fish” a few years ago. They read the script and loved it, and then we had a Zoom meeting. They were champions of the project from then on. It’s wonderful to have her in my corner.

This is such a personal story. What did you find most challenging in terms of shooting?

Anything involving the father character, Hossein, was particularly challenging. At the same time, the actor I chose [Osamah Sami] has been a good friend for 10 years. We both live in Melbourne and I respect him very much. He’s also a really funny guy who does a lot of stand-up comedy. He has a charisma, presence, humor and lightness that I loved, and he just allowed his character to have that other side that the audience could access. He is not just a black and white character. As an actor, he made me laugh every time he was on set, which really helped me with what I was going through.

There must have also been some crossover between your editing of the film and the revolution in Iran, right?

The first two weeks of the issue correspond to the time when the regime arrested and killed Mahsa Amini. It was very difficult for my editor. [who is Iranian American] and I to focus because we were following the news every night, not sleeping, stressed, trying to call the family and not communicating. But at the same time, we found a new motivation to finish it, to do it as well as possible because Shayda’s fight is also a fight for freedom and independence, and to break these cultural norms and laws that prevent her from living a life. on their own terms. He gave me renewed motivation to finish the film, because I had a depressive episode after finishing shooting where it was very difficult for me to be productive due to the emotional cost of the filming process. I needed a week or two off. I was crying a lot and processing, but my editor was so beautiful in creating a safe space and creating an energy of light. When the revolution started in Iran, we were very united by this situation and we felt powerless. But at the end of the film, we find a renewed purpose.

When it’s so easy for people to turn off the news and block out what’s going on, how do you think movies like yours can change the perception of these world events? Could there be a change in the collective consciousness and how we discuss what is happening in Iran?

In the case of what is happening in Iran and the type of films we are making, it is important to highlight a subjective and intimate experience, a personal experience. One that takes you on a character’s journey, what is happening on a day-to-day basis. Because obviously with Instagram headlines and posts, you can only catch a glimpse of something. My main hope for “Shayda” is that she is a drop in this ocean of change. I don’t see it as something that is going to create monumental change. I am very realistic about the situation. I just hope it’s a way to amplify and support what’s happening in Iran. I don’t think it can be more than that, but at the same time, I think that’s valuable and I’m very grateful to be able to contribute in that way.

How do you feel about the possibility of the film being banned from showing in Iran?

I never thought that was very realistic. The film is not political, per se. It’s about social issues and the rights of women and women who are seeking freedom in the West, so I never had any hope that it would be screened in Iran. One of my actors, when the revolution was going on, said, “How wonderful would it be if we could come back one day and show the film?” And that was really the first time I had a little vision about it. It was very beautiful. But no, I never hoped to project myself there, just because I know all the censorship in Iran. If I were to go back today, I think I’d be in prison. I don’t think I’ll be allowed to leave the country because of the movie and the people I made the movie with.

“Shayda” has its world premiere in Park City on January 20, with additional screenings from January 21-27.

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