In a move that perfectly exemplifies the globalization of world cinema, Australia recently announced the selection of Shayda as its entry for the Academy Awards. Centering an Iranian woman and her young daughter living in Australia, this expertly acted and deeply touching drama follows the pair as they navigate an uncertain future after leaving an abusive home. As the film continued its lauded festival run at the Toronto International Film Festival, Awards Radar caught up with director Noora Niasari to discuss the making of the film and its real life inspirations and impact.
Shane Slater: What was the inspiration for this film?
Noora Niasari: When I was five years old, I lived in a women’s shelter with my mom in Australia. So it’s very much inspired by our personal experience.
SS: The film touches on the sensitive topic of abuse. What were some of the intentions and guiding principles behind how you wanted to portray that in the film?
NN: I wanted the structure of the film to be around life after the escape. So it’s very much aboutleaving that situation, but what happens from that moment on. And how a mother is able to rebuild her life and find that sense of independence and defining a new path for herself. So it’s really about life after the escape and how she lives in a day to day situation where she’s moving beyond her fear. She’s constantly trying to move beyond her fear. And beyond her anxieties of the danger.
SS: This is essentially a period piece. And I was very curious about the context of the Iranian community in Australia at that time, how that community has changed. Would this story be different today?
NN: Absolutely, so different now. I mean, the film is set in the mid-90s. And there were two reasons for that. One is to do with the women’s shelter in general, at that time. It was a communal house, these women were sharing a house together, sharing space together. Nowadays, they are living in separate units in the same complex. So that’s one factor.
The other one is, definitely the Iranian community at that time, the majority were not secular. The majority were students that were having scholarships from the Iranian government, as kind of representatives of the regime in a way, but studying abroad. And so, the secular were a real minority in the community. Whereas nowadays, the majority is secular. So that context of the divisions within the community and the makeup of the community were really fundamental to Shayda.
SS: The characters are caught between these two cultures, and I love that you’re not rejecting the Iranian culture, food, music. How did you approach those nuances of calling out some of the flaws of conservative attitudes, but also embracing the other parts of the culture.
NN: I think for Shayda, it’s about reclaiming her sense of culture and identity beyond what’s expected of her in society. And so, her teaching her daughter how to dance and cooking Persian food and listening to Iranian pop music, it’s really fundamental to their connection to culture. And obviously, it’s something that really binds migrants to a sense of home and belonging when you’re living so far away from home. So you know, it was really important as well t find the light in the darkness through those rituals and celebrations.
SS: How did you go about casting the mother-daughter pair?
NN: The little girl is Iranian-Australian. So we found her in Australia. But it was a really tough search, we searched all over Australia for Shayda. I think I tested more than 100 women. But nobody quite hit the mark in terms of what I was looking for. And I was introduced to Zar’s work through another actor in France. And the first audition that I saw from her, I just knew immediately, like within the first 10 seconds. She has this duality of being vulnerable and strong at the same time. And she’s also been through so much in her own life that she brought to the role. But yeah, I just knew it was Shayda as soon as I saw that audition, and that took like a year to manifest the lead role.
Similarly, with Selina who plays Mona, we searched all over Australia. We had tapes from little girls from every capital city and she was one of the shortlisted young actors from Melbourne. She was only six years old at the time. And when we did the callback in person, we gave her a situation and she really locked in emotionally, and she cried without being prompted, because of the nature of the scenario we gave her. She was able to kind of snap out of it as well within like, 10 minutes. And that was remarkable to see her emotional intelligence and how she was able to kind of switch in and out of emotions. She’s kind of a genius child. We got so lucky finding her.
SS: Did you do a lot of preparation to get that chemistry between them?
NN: We had two months, like eight weekends of rehearsals with Selina just by herself. It was just me, Selina and my assistant, kind of prepping her. My main goal was to protect her from the material of the film. And so in those workshops, they were like little acting workshops for a child. But at the same time, trying to access the emotions she needed to, through different scenarios that were child friendly. So that when we were on set, we were able to go remember that emotion that is about this situation, and she’d kind of be able to quickly look into it.
So that was a really long process. But once Zar arrived, they were bonded within the first encounter, honestly. As soon as they saw each other, they we’re playing games, paint each other’s nails, laughing together, having fun. I think that the connection was just one of those things that was just inherent, because they were both so open and so prepared. And I think with Zar especially, she was really open to playing a mother and sitting in the space of being a maternal figure. So I think it was about an open heartedness and a connection. And yeah, they just fell in love with each other. It was just the right casting.
SS: Your film won the Audience Award at Sundance and it’s the Australian submission for the Oscars Has there been anything particularly memorable about the journey of this film?
NN: It’s been amazing the way that audiences have responded to the film. Sundance was the first time we showed it to a general audience. And so that was a little bit daunting, because it’s the world premiere. But we had around seven screenings, and every time, at the end of each screening, there were people in tears and so grateful and feeling so connected to the story. No matter what culture or gender they were from, it was kind of remarkable. I didn’t realize how universal the story was until those screenings. And yeah, there was some really beautiful responses both at Sundance and Locarno and Melbourne Film Festival where we opened.
I think around the world, there’s been an overwhelming emotional response to the film. It’s really touching people’s hearts in a way that has been really humbling and gratifying. There was one woman at Sundance who had knitted a scarf for me. She works in a women’s shelter in Utah, and it was her form of gratitude for me making this film, because she felt so seen. And she said that it felt so authentic to her experience. She put the scarf around my neck at the end of the screening, and it felt like a real, really sweet moment.
And then there’s been other situations. Like, in Australia, one of the screenings, it was a woman who came up to me who was really grateful because she said that whenever she thinks of Iran now, it’s the dance, it’s the joy. It’s the beauty of the culture. And she was really excited to dive deeper into the culture after seeing the film. You know, there’s been women who left their husbands and said that seeing the film kind of allowed them to feel a sense of closure that they made the right decision, which, which was kind of amazing. There’s been so many different moments like that.