Five years ago, Noura Niasari asked her mother to write a memoir to fill in the gaps of some vague childhood memories. The Iranian Australian director was just five years old when his mother fled an abusive relationship and left her entire community abroad to raise Niasari as her own.
An early draft of “Shayda,” which opens the World Film Drama Competition at Sundance on Friday, was based on that memoir and tracks Niasari’s mother’s life from her marriage in Iran to her search for freedom with her child in Australia as a teenager. The resulting film stars Tsar Amir-Ebrahimi as Shayda and Selina Jahednia as her daughter Mona in the breakout “Holy Spider”.
“The current version of the film has a lot of fictional elements, but it’s based on the emotional truth of our experiences,” says Melbourne-based Niasari. diversity.
Backed by Screen Australia and produced by Cate Blanchett’s Dirty Films, “Maybe” is the helmer’s first feature film and follows a string of acclaimed shorts including “Tam”, “17 Years and a Day” and “Simorg”. The director says she had to work up to “maybe”, both technically as an artiste and emotionally as a daughter who is still processing the trauma of her past.
However, that agony 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 “unreasonably wearing a hijab.” “
Amini’s death sparked a revolution in Iran, now spawning the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, which has seen women abandon their hijabs in public and even destroy them in protest, only to face violent and sometimes deadly rebuke from the regime. . According to the Human Rights Activist News Agency, more than 500 people have died so far as part of the street protests.
Niasari hopes that “Shayda” — one of three films by Iranian-born directors playing at Sundance (the others are “Persian Version” and “Junam”) — will be a “drop in the ocean of change.” While no protests of any kind are planned for Park City yet, the director said industry panels will address the situation and human rights as well as its impact on filmmaking.
“I don’t see it as something that’s going to create a monumental change – I’m really realistic about the situation – I hope it’s a way to amplify and support what’s happening in Iran.”
Read on for Niasari’s full interview.
You’ve made several shorts before this feature. Why was this the right moment to make the film?
I didn’t feel ready. I felt we were making shorts, documentaries, travel, work, writers’ rooms, directors’ attachments. All of these things were stepping stones to creating my feature. And at the same time, I had to process some things in my personal life to make this film, because it was very challenging, emotionally and psychologically. I don’t know if I could have done it sooner.
When exactly did you shoot?
In July and August 2022.
What peace. So you saw Jar in “Holy Spider” then?
Well, actually, I wasn’t. I saw the film before shooting, but when I cast Jar, it was before Cannes. It is in February 2022. I was introduced to him as a potential candidate for Shayda. We searched far and wide, and I’m so grateful that I met Ja because, as soon as I saw his first audition, I knew he nailed the character. The duality of her vulnerability and strength really blew me away and I knew she was Shayda.
When did Cate Blanchett and her production company come on board?
They got involved towards the end of this development phase, just before we went to market with the script. Sent the script to a producer [Blanchett] Because he had worked with him a few years ago in a film called “Little Fish”. They read the script and liked it, and then we had a Zoom meeting. Since then they have been champions of the project. It’s wonderful to have her in my corner.
This is such a personal story. What did you find most challenging about shooting?
Anything involving the father character Hussain was particularly challenging. Also the actor I cast [Osamah Sami] A good friend for 10 years. We both live in Melbourne and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a very funny guy who does a lot of stand-up comedy. He has a charisma, presence, humor and lightness that I love and it just allows this other side of his character to be accessible to the audience. He’s not just a black and white character. As an actor, he made me laugh every time I was on set, which really helped with what I was going through.
There must be some crossover between your editing of the film and the Iranian revolution, right?
The first few weeks of editing are around the time when Mahsa Amini was detained and killed by the regime. It was very difficult for my editor [who is Iranian-American] And I want to concentrate because we were following the news every night, not sleeping, stressed, trying to call family and not getting through. But at the same time, we have a new motivation to end it, to make it the best we can because Shayda’s fight is also a fight for freedom and independence, and to get away from these cultural norms and laws that prevent her from living. on his own terms. This gave me a new motivation to finish the film, as I had a depressive episode after finishing the shoot where it was very difficult for me to be productive due to the mental toll of the filming process. I needed a week or two off. I would cry and process a lot, but my editor was so nice to create a safe space and create a lighter energy. When the revolution started in Iran, we were very united in this situation, and we felt helpless. But as we finished the film, we found a new purpose.
When it’s so easy for people to turn off the news and block out what’s happening, how do you think films like yours can change the perception of these world events? Can the collective consciousness change and how do we discuss what is happening in Iran?
In the example of what’s happening in Iran, and the kind of film we’re making, it’s important to convey a subjective, intimate experience—a personal one. One that takes you on a character’s journey, what they go through on a daily basis. Because obviously in headlines and Instagram posts, you only get a glimpse of something. My main hope for “maybe” is that it is a drop in this ocean of change. I don’t see it as something that’s going to make a monumental change. I’m really realistic about the situation. I just hope that this is a way to expand and support what is happening in Iran. I don’t think it can be more than that, but at the same time, I think it’s valuable and I’m very grateful to be able to contribute in that way.
How do you feel about the film being banned in Iran?
I never thought it was so real. The film is not political. It’s about social issues and women’s rights and women seeking freedom in the West, so I didn’t really expect it to show up in Iran. One of my actors, when the revolution was happening, said, “How amazing would it be if we could go back one day and actually screen the film?” And that was really the first time I had a little vision about it. It was very beautiful. But no, I never expected that I would screen there, because I know about all the censorship in Iran. If I went back today, I think I would be in prison. I don’t think I will be allowed to leave the country because of the film and the people I made the film with.
“Maybe” has its world premiere Jan. 20 in Park City, with additional screenings Jan. 21-27.