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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Noora Niasari on Shayda

Writer/director/producer Noora Niasari was born in Tehran and raised in Australia. She studied architecture before turning to filmmaking, later receiving a Masters of Film & Television from the Victorian College of the Arts and studying. In 2015, she traveled to Spain where she was mentored by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. She has made documentaries and narrative shorts set all around the globe, often focusing on themes of memory, transience, childhood, and the interior lives of the Iranian diaspora.

"Shayda,” Niasari's narrative feature debut, made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival where it screened as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition and went on to win the Audience Award. Inspired in part by her own childhood, the film follows Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), an Iranian immigrant living in a women's shelter in Australia with her young daughter, as she attempts to divorce her abusive husband who wants the family to return to Iran. Set during the two weeks leading up to Nowruz (Persian New Year), the film explores Shayda's desire for freedom and self actualization as she tries to maintain a sense of normalcy for her daughter.

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column RogerEbert.com spoke to Niasari over Zoom about bringing her unique experience to the screen, her casting process, the conflicting feelings evoked by celebrating Persian New Year in the diaspora, and representing Australia in the race for the Best International Film at this year’s Oscars. 

The first draft of “Shayda” was inspired by a memoir that your mother wrote. How were you able to synthesize 50,000 words into this fictionalized story?

I would say that my goal was never really to synthesize the memoir, because it was ten years of her life. I could have made ten feature films from the amount of story and material that was there. But what I knew that I wanted to focus on from the beginning was the world of the women's shelter, and that period of our time there. Firstly, because we haven't seen that world on screens before, in an authentic way. So I really wanted to be the person to bring that to the fore. I wanted the film to have an intensity. So setting it on a very specific timeline like the two weeks of Persian New Year was important for the structuring of the screenplay. 

What emotions did this process evoke?

I would say that the film is emotionally autobiographical. But, you know, it takes its own life when you're writing. It took me three years to write the screenplay. So there was a lot of exploration of character and motivations that sometimes went beyond our experiences. It’s that fine line of navigating reality and fiction. I shared the screenplay with my mother every time I did a draft, and she would give notes, but a lot of them I didn't take on board, because she was, understandably, really tied and connected to what really happened. But my job as a filmmaker is to do what is best for the film and what is best for the script and find the cinematic potential of the story beyond our story, to make it a universal experience. I'm really proud that it's been reaching people all over the world.

What was your experience going through the various Australian development pipelines?

I was lucky to be supported through most of the development. I wrote the first draft on spec, but from there on I did receive support. I was really lucky to be working with an amazing script editor  Lynne Vincent McCarthy, who's also Jennifer Kent’s script editor. She helped me in many ways to find that objectivity and was a sounding board as well. But in terms of the actual notes that came through during the pipeline of the screen agencies, they didn't have a lot of heavy handed notes. I found the process actually quite smooth. I think part of the reason is because of the film's cultural specificity and uniqueness in the Australian film landscape, because it's from a person who's lived that specific experience. I think there was a level of trust in my writing and ability to bring this story to screen. I’ve heard a lot of stories from Australian filmmakers that the agencies might give too many notes or notes that are not aligned with their vision, but I didn't find that to be the case for “Shayda.” I felt if anything they definitely challenged me in the right ways. But I always felt that I had that trust and support.

The film is set in 1995, and you use that amazing Rozalla song “Everybody's Free,” which fits beautifully with the film’s themes, but is also such a bop. How did you come to use that song?

This song is so monumental in so many ways. I grew up with 90s music, and especially because my mom would actually be going to nightclubs as a single mom in the 90s. So she would play all of these songs as we were growing up. “Everybody’s Free” was one of those songs to be honest and it always stayed with me. I just felt that it fit that euphoric moment in Shayda’s journey so beautifully. Especially because the film is so much about finding freedom and finding agency in one's life. It's all about her choosing. Choosing how to live her life, how to dress, how to divorce how to, how to have an education, and how to give her daughter a different life. I think that song just beautifully exemplifies that sense of a woman having agency. And, yea, it's such a wonderful song to dance to as well. It's a real anthem. 

Obviously Zar Amir Ebrahimi has had an amazing couple of years. But this was the first performance for Selina Zahednia playing Mona.

I was so lucky to work with Zar, especially off the back of her winning best actress at Cannes. We actually cast her before “Holy Spider” came out. So it was just an incredible year for her and she brought so much to the role, so much nuance and emotionality and strength. I think she carries the film beautifully. 

But also equally, I think Selina is a remarkable talent. She was six years old when she starred in the film. I was so fortunate. She was one of a hundred girls who auditioned for the film via self tapes. Then she was one of ten who did callbacks in Melbourne. As soon as she walked into the room, I just felt her star quality, her energy. She sat down and I gave her a situation and she cried, but not because I prompted her to, it was just how she felt in the moment. It was just one of those auditions that blows you away. I cast her immediately because she just had this emotional intelligence beyond her years. I spent around two months in rehearsals with her and my assistant to really get her prepared for the shoot and for meeting Zar and everything that was required. Especially because I wanted to protect her from the material of the film. To this day, she doesn't really know what the film is really about. We went to great great lengths to protect her. 

When she met with Zar, they fell in love at first sight. It was so beautiful witnessing their connection. I think there were two things. One was that I had them do a long distance correspondence before they met in person. Zar lives in Paris, and Selina was here in Australia. I had them record video messages to each other and send each other presents. So by the time they met they were just enamored with each other. They just had an incredible chemistry. It's just one of those things when it comes to casting when you have this instinct about two people. 

They were just playing immediately. They would paint each other's nails and visit an arcade together and were just having so much fun. By the time we were on set, after doing rehearsals with them, they were just so bonded to the point where on the days that Selina wasn't on set, Zar was really struggling. But it went both ways. I remember the first time that Selina was without Zar and was doing a scene with Hossein (Osamah Sami), her father in the film, and it was the only time during the whole shoot when Selina complained or was upset in any way. 

It just speaks to how bonded they were. For me, it was really about capturing their mother daughter connection on and off screen, because it was happening even when we weren't rolling. So I had to be really, really observant and vigilant. I captured a lot of moments that weren’t scripted as well, because I wanted to capture the essence of their love for each other, and they still love each other. I'm excited that they'll be reunited in January at Palm Springs Film Festival, so that will be really fun.

One of the things that really struck me when I first watched the film, and again when I rewatched it, was how well you strike the balance between the joy of their relationship and the struggles that Shayda is going through. There’s a scene where she's sitting in a cafe and she's just bereft, but the scene right before that was like she was playing with her daughter and she brought all that joy. How did you strike that balance?

I think that that balance was important to me from the outset, from the words on the page and the script. I really wanted to capture, in an honest way, motherhood in that situation where a mother is escaping domestic violence with her daughter. I didn't want it to be steeped in victimhood. I wanted it to be portraying the light and the joy, as well as the fear and the dread and the anxiety. 

Because that's what we experienced. I experienced so much warmth and safety with my mother when we got to the shelter. Being in the shelter with my mom was the first time I felt safe in my life. I think that is part of the struggle of being a mother. Putting all of your anxieties to one side and being present with your child to give them that light and joy every day. I think that speaks to Shayda’s strength to be able to do that for Mona. It's so much about a celebration of culture as well. Which brings so much life and color to the film. Every step of the way, I wanted the film to have that sense of finding light in the darkness. I'm so glad that it came across because, ultimately, the film is a hopeful one.

Obviously this is a film about living in a diaspora. I'd love to hear your thoughts on setting it during the Persian New Year, and how you explore these themes of connectedness even when your culture is so spread throughout the world.

The thing is that no matter what situation Iranians are in, in terms of politics or ideology or conflict, no matter the dark times, we always look to the light, we look to Persian New Year, we look to poetry, we look to dance and music. That's a kind of a survival mechanism. It's also a form of therapy for us. It doesn't matter if we live in Iran, or we live abroad. It's what unites us as a people and as a culture. That's been true for thousands of years. That's something that I grew up with, so it was organic for it to find itself in my first film. 

For me, Persian New Year has always been this perplexing condition, because in Iran, it's in Spring and it’s all about new life, and new flowering, but I only ever experienced it in Autumn, living in the southern hemisphere. So it was always kind of a strange experience seeing all the leaves fall off the trees, and having that sense of feeling really far from our homeland, to the point where we're experiencing a completely different season at that special time during Persian New Year. So that symbolism was really important for me to capture in the film, because it just has such a potent visual quality that lends itself to Shayda’s emotional journey, of letting go, of shedding her past and finding a new way to be in the world. It just felt right to frame the story around that. 

And it's so much about her reclaiming parts of her culture, on her terms. Not the things that are demanded of her, but the things that she chooses to keep in her life and to pass down to her daughter. It's very empowering in that way, to be able to stake a claim on the parts of your culture that keep you buoyant and keep you connected to your soul and your homeland. I'm really happy that we were able to capture the beauty and grace of Persian New Year. 

But it shows the displacement. At the same moment, her mother in Iran is experiencing Persian New Year in a completely different context than Shayda is. And it always illuminated that feeling of distance for us. But it's also a bridge. It bridges us as well. So it has two sides of the coin.

I wanted to ask you about the 4:3 aspect ratio. It brings a really intimate feeling to everything that's happening. At what point in the process did you land on that aspect ratio?

From the outset. My cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh and I had made a short film just before “Shayda” called “Tâm.” It was a one shot thriller and it was a very subjective female experience of a woman waking up in a hotel room, not knowing where she is or how she got there. It was kind of a stylistic prelude to “Shayda” in a sense of exploring that visceral female subjectivity. So we came into “Shayda” with that intention of putting the audience in a woman's point of view, but also only ever seeing the world through her eyes, or alongside her. That was so important to us. We never see the film through Hossein's point of view. There are times where we see it through Mona's point of view, but that is mostly about building suspense throughout the film.

I think that aspect ratio, for that reason, puts you in her, in her mind, and in her experience. I think it's also a very claustrophobic situation being in limbo in that stage of life, when you're escaping domestic violence and you don’t know where you're gonna live because you’re in a temporary housing situation. So the claustrophobia is also captured in that boxed aspect ratio.

There’s one scene early on with the social worker where Shayda is going through the translation of her statement and she tells the translator on the phone that she didn't translate the divorce part and the translator says “that's obvious” and Shayda says no, it isn't. I'd love to hear your thoughts on translation and specifically things getting lost in translation in these situations and in this film.

These translation scenes, they're so important to the film, because we never see Shayda’s life before she's in the women's shelter. There's no flashbacks. We're so much in the present moment. So those scenes allow us to feel what's happened to her to get to this point. And it's a legal process that happens all the time with women from non-English speaking backgrounds to clarify their statements for legal proceedings. 

I always found it kind of fascinating, this notion of translation. Because I've grown up between two worlds. Some things in Farsi never quite make sense in English and vice versa. I just found it such an interesting dilemma to explore that line of testimony, and how it can be misinterpreted or misused and in that situation that interpreter recognizes her, it's a woman in the community. That's also a very common issue with finding interpreters in a safe way. Because if they do recognize you, there’s a potential of the partner tracking them down. 

It seems like a simple thing, but it's actually so complex in those myriad of ways. So in that moment it's a way for Shayda to find empowerment in the telling of her story and being able to find the strength to stand up and say, “No, that's not correct. That's not my story. This is my story.” As those scenes progress, you really see her coming into her own and finding that willpower to find her voice.

You’ve said “Shayda” is part of a planned trilogy of films. I'd love to hear a bit about what your vision for that trilogy is going to be.

It's a trilogy about Iranian women. So “Shayda” is the first. The second is called “Raya,” which is an adaptation of an Iranian American novel, which I've been attached to since 2018. I'm writing and directing. And we've cast the leads, which we're going to have an announcement in the next week or two. It's set in France and is kind of “Thelma and Louise,” but with two Iranian women in exile, and one happens to be a former Queen of Iran. So it's a very different flavor to “Shayda.” It's a road movie and it's a female friendship story and explores adventure and humor. It's being produced by Gary Foster, who brought the book to me in 2018. He produced “Sleepless in Seattle”, and more recently “Finestkind.”  The third one is still in the works, but it's going to be a biopic. 

Are there any women filmmakers who have inspired you at some point, whether it's for this film in particular or just in general, or any filmmakers or films by women that you absolutely love that you think more people should seek out?

Yes, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. Okay, so female filmmakers who inspire me, especially for this film, Andrea Arnold. She was such a touchstone for us, especially in terms of the cinematography and exploration of female subjectivity. I think she's a remarkable storyteller. And so brave. Obviously, I love Jane Campion's work. I would say “The Piano” is one of my favorite films of all time. Sofia Coppola. I love Sofia and the way that she's able to capture the intimacy between characters and the femininity of her characters. It's always super inspiring. “Lost in Translation,” is also one of my favorite films. I'm excited to see “Priscilla.” She's got a very particular aesthetic and voice. I also just love her style. I think she's a badass. 

In terms of films that I think more people should watch, you know, there's an incredible Iranian female director. Her name is Ida Panahandeh. She's based in Iran, and she made a film called “Nahid.” It played at Certain Regard at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. To this day, it's one of my favorite films. It was definitely a touchstone for “Shayda.” It's about a single mother in Iran and her husband who she's trying to leave who is a drug addict. She's going through all of these issues with the divorce and custody, and all the while she's just a really quirky woman living by the Caspian Sea. There's so many good ones.

I've been in festival programs constantly this year with Molly Manning Walker and her film “How To Have Sex.” I haven't seen it, but from what I've read, I'm all about it. I think she's incredible. I love her cinematography as well. I can't wait to see that

For me, it’s about female filmmakers who are capturing something that is very specific to the female experience. I feel like there's so many films made about women, by men, that are still always through a male gaze, as hard as they try to make it like a feminist piece. 

We're in the international film race for the Oscars as Australia's representative, and trying to find other female directors hasn’t been easy. There's a Mexican film “Totem” from a female director and a few others. There’s “Slow” from Marija Kavtaradzė that was also at Sundance. We connected there and I love that film. She's really talented and has a really distinct aesthetic and voice.

But I'm really feeling that as I progress through the press and doing panels, there are often male directors and a male host and it is hard to take up space. It's a challenge. I feel hopeful that there's more female directors coming through. But it's definitely a challenge, especially dealing with all of the pressures and expectations of how to be, which I don't feel is happening for male directors in the same way. Like how to behave, how to interact. There's so much expectation for you to be a certain way. I find that very difficult. I hope that it changes over time.

Another filmmaker I forgot to mention, who is probably my favorite female director, is Agnès Varda. I think she's unique in a way because she's unapologetically herself. I really look up to her in that way, because she's her authentic self from beginning to end. She was incredible. I am so inspired by her, and not just by her films, but her strength and her ability to go, “This is me. If you like it, that's great. If not, that's fine, too.” She's just authentically true to herself. She's also just eternally curious and I think that's so beautiful to be able to get through this industry for as long as she did, and still have that childlike fascination with the medium. I really look up to that.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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