Director Noora Niasari’s debut feature film Shayda – Australia’s official nomination for the international Oscar – is driven by dark childhood memories. By Stephen A. Russell.

Director Noora Niasari

Greyscale portrait photograph of a young woman with dark hair and a nose piercing.
Director Noora Niasari.
Credit: Keiran-Watson Bonnice

One of the most affecting scenes of filmmaker Noora Niasari’s powerful debut feature, Shayda – a semi-autobiographical reckoning with the domestic violence experienced by her and her mother – sees the title character lost in a reverie. As played by Iranian actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi, she contemplates autumnal leaves shivering on a tree in Melbourne in 1995 during Nowruz (Persian New Year).

For Shayda, as for the film’s writer and director, the seasons are upended. “I never experienced Nowruz at springtime until I was 19,” Niasari says over a pot of steaming green tea in Fitzroy’s Bentwood cafe, as the first blush of spring softens Melbourne’s winter blues. “When the leaves are falling has always been my experience of it.”

The seasons are as alike as they are different. “It’s about rebirth, that shedding – a letting go,” Niasari says. “It was incredibly grounding for the film to be set at that time of year and threaded in the poetry of new beginnings. Of Shayda finding her definition of it in this foreign land.”

Shayda recently opened the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) after premiering at Sundance. Four months after she was cast in the lead role, Ebrahimi – recommended to Niasari by Invasion star Golshifteh Farahani – won Best Actress at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in Border director Ali Abbasi’s crime thriller Holy Spider. “Zar was propelled into stardom and I was so worried that she wouldn’t do my film,” Niasari recalls. “But she did, because she’s humble and grounded, and she identified with the script so much. You could tell in the first 10 seconds of her audition how much she embodied the character.”

Cate Blanchett was similarly gripped, coming on board as a producer with her husband, Andrew Upton, early in the production process before financing was in place. “Cate told me, ‘I identify with this film as a woman; this hits my heart,’ ” Niasari says. “And she’s been such an incredible advocate. It’s so incredibly meaningful as a debut filmmaker to have someone like that champion your film. It gives confidence to financiers, festivals and audiences, because she has impeccable taste, intellect and a passion for female stories and storytellers.”

Casting Melbourne-based six-year-old Selina Zahednia – who is remarkable as Mona, the character based on the young Niasari – involved a nationwide search. “We had around 100 Iranian girls audition, and in the very first interaction we had with her, she started crying,” Niasari says. “And it was really just her reaction to the moment – it wasn’t a direction I gave her. Then she was able to switch out of it into a happy mood. She had this emotional intelligence beyond her years.”

It was vitally important to Niasari that her confronting experiences weren’t passed down to Zahednia. “She’s so expressive, so present and full of joy, and hasn’t had that kind of trauma in her life,” she says. “Her parents are still together, she’s not aware of these concepts and I never wanted her to become aware of them. So I went to great lengths to protect her.”

That often involved shooting Zahednia separately from the adults for scenes of physical and psychological violence and deploying a double who didn’t speak Farsi. “I’m proud of that because in a way it was like protecting my own inner child,” Niasari says. “It’s kind of meta. She’s playing a version of me but I really took a maternal role, and so did Zar.”

That required commitment from Ebrahimi. “We only had Selina for six hours a day, which was limiting in general, and because Zar became so bonded with her, she found it hard to access those feelings without Selina there,” Niasari says. “But it was understood that this is what we needed to do.”

Born in Tehran, raised in Brisbane and now based on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in Castlemaine, Niasari and her partner, Keiran Watson-Bonnice, set up their production company, Parandeh Pictures, in The Mill, an 1870s wool factory converted into a creative business hub, during Shayda’s post-production. Parandeh means “bird” in Farsi, Niasari’s first language.

“It’s something that we can grow together, because we really want to be the authors of our work,” Niasari says. “We moved to Castlemaine in January and live off-grid in the middle of the bush surrounded by eucalyptus trees and birdsong. It’s a very grounding place.”

Growing up with English as a second language informs Niasari’s viewpoint. “I do feel as though I observe things, not [so much] from an outsider perspective … it just gives you a different perspective and I think that translates to stories that are more universal and not so Australian-centric.”

Niasari was about six years old when her mother fled from her father, with the pair spending an unusually extended eight-month stretch in a Brisbane women’s shelter because of complicated visa conditions. “She really discovered her rights as a woman in Australia, and how polarised that was from her rights in Iran, which were very limited,” Niasari says. “She was able to educate herself and find the support and services she needed.”

Niasari will be eternally grateful to her mother for sharing her painful memories. “I asked her to write a memoir, which took her around six months,” she says. “I would sit with her every night. She would read passages to me and I would guide and support her. That was very therapeutic, but also a difficult process for her. She did that for me, so that I could write Shayda.”

While Shayda borrows from their truth, it is fictionalised. The shelter is relocated, for example, from Brisbane to Melbourne. “The first draft was very close to the material she provided me, but it grew from there,” Niasari says. “It was beautiful for us to come together to start this journey of reclaiming our story – not as victims but as survivors – and creating art from it.”

Her mother bonded with Ebrahimi during rehearsals. “It was such a rewarding experience because we’re like sisters now, and she also became really close with my mum, who shared a lot of materials with her, building the intimacy of those relationships.”

Niasari’s mother also accompanied her to Sundance. “It’s a very euphoric, cathartic feeling, sharing your story with strangers on a different continent. She hugged me as she was leaving and said it was the best experience of her life.”

Though she found revisiting this period in their lives confronting, Niasari’s fractured memories of the shelter are largely positive. “It was very nurturing, healing and maternal, and we developed this really strong bond with the head of the shelter, who’s still in our life,” she says. “She’s kind of like my godmother and has been touring with the film too. So many of her stories are woven into Shayda.”

The Drover’s Wife filmmaker, actor and author Leah Purcell plays this role. “She’s actually from the same part of Queensland as the shelter manager, they’re both staunch feminists and Leah embodies that maternal boss figure,” Niasari says. “She also had experience working in shelters, so she understood everything. And, of course, as an Indigenous woman, it felt even more meaningful that she was the mother of this house and everyone else was a guest.”

Los Angeles-based Iranian director and editor Elika Rezaee’s help was invaluable in meeting Sundance’s deadline. “She flew from California to Castlemaine to be with me and we just had the best time in the edit because she brought so much safety, humour and new energy,” Niasari says. “I’m so grateful, because I was in a dark place and she was able to hold me in that and bring me out of it.”

Mahsa Amini was murdered while they worked on the film, sparking protests across Iran. “We were struggling to find motivation to work, trying to call our families there, and felt so helpless about what was unfolding,” Niasari recalls. “And then we realised that finishing Shayda was our agency, our ability to do something, so we worked night and day.”

Niasari’s filmmaking journey has taken a circuitous route. “When I was 17 years old, I was still finding myself in the world and I actually went to architecture school,” she says. “My mum either wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I wanted to go to art school. Mum felt architecture was more like a career, so that’s where I ended up.”

While studying at the University of Technology Sydney, Niasari attended a short film workshop in Wales run by professor, artist and architect Richard Goodwin, where she interviewed migrant residents of a commission housing block in Cardiff. “He was the first person in my life who said, ‘You could be a filmmaker,’ ” she says. “Architecture informs so much of how I write, in terms of moving through space, how it influences us and creates a narrative structure. I’m really grateful that I had that education.”

A string of documentary shorts followed, taking her from Wales to Beirut and on to Chile. Niasari studied a Master of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts, where her eye shifted towards narrative shorts. She cast Manouchehr Farid, one of Iran’s biggest pre-Revolution stars, in her graduate short The Phoenix, his first role in 35 years. Winning the VCA New Voice Award, the film was also nominated for Best Australian Short Film at MIFF during her 2015 participation in the festival’s Accelerator Lab. That same year, she joined a workshop led by the late Palme d’Or-winning Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in Barcelona. “He’s one of the greatest artists ever, and I’d looked up to him since I was a kid, so it was overwhelming,” she says.

Kiarostami encouraged her to explore her relationship with her father. “He planted a few seeds of curiosity about why he was the way he was and how you come to terms with that,” Niasari says. “I hadn’t thought about it in great depth until he encouraged me to.”

Niasari cast Ali’s Wedding lead and stand-up comedian Osamah Sami against type as a reflection of her father in Shayda. “I’ve been friends with him for about 10 years and I’ve always found him so endearingly charming and funny, so it was a real transformation,” Niasari says. “I was interested in finding the layers of the character that weren’t two-dimensional. I wanted the audience to feel some empathy for him. He has his own moral compass. The last thing in the world I wanted was to create a black and white antagonist.”

While bringing the necessary shade to the role, Sami also brought light, Niasari says. “He was so beautiful to work with, because he would make me smile and that would break the tension.”

She hopes audiences will embrace the film. “It’s a love letter to mothers and daughters and having agency in one’s life,” she says. “Domestic violence plagues all societies and there needs to be more awareness and discussion about how people can feel protected within their communities as a whole, not just within a shelter.”

That includes educating young men. “I get moved the most when men see the film and have an emotional response, because I feel like that’s kind of where the change is happening, in understanding a woman’s experience from the inside out,” Niasari says. “Perhaps that’s gonna shift some behaviours here and there, but it’s a collective battle.”

Australia’s official nominee for next year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar, Shayda will be released on October 5, with the MIFF opening night slot feeling like a graduation. “The festival has been such a vital part of me coming into my own as a filmmaker,” Niasari says.

She danced to Persian music with Zahednia at the afterparty in State Library Victoria, with the great domed reading room lit up with Farsi calligraphy. “It felt like the city embraced us – never mind just my mother and I, but the Iranian community,” she says. “I had a lot of young filmmakers of colour coming up to me thanking me, feeling inspired and empowered to tell their story, and I hope Shayda can be that beacon.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Poetry of renewal".

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