In her feature directorial debut, Shayda, writer-director Noora Niasari expertly balances the pain of the film’s heavy subject matter around domestic abuse with the unfettered joy shared between mother and daughter through dance.

Communicating the film’s joyful nature through the relationship between main character Shayda and her young daughter made sense, considering that Niasari’s own mother’s memoir served as the inspiration for the movie.

Noora Niasari on Making Her Feature Directorial Debut, Shayda

“It was very hard to write this story, obviously, because it’s a very personal story. In a way, it’s like I had to write those lighter scenes for myself, but also because I knew that that’s where my mother got her strength, was from the Iranian dance from the poetry from the music. All of those things we lived, you know? It’s very emotionally true to our experience,” Niasari during a Q&A following a screening of Shayda at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“I worked really closely with my editor to find the rhythm and balance of the light and dark. We never wanted to keep the audience too long in a certain state of mind. So that’s why those dance sequences are so vital to the film, and also just showing the beauty of the connection between the mother and daughter, the beauty of Iranian culture, and Shayda reclaiming those parts of her heritage as a way of setting her own path, setting her own destiny.”

Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Selina Zahednia, and Osamah Sami, the film follows Shayda, a brave Iranian mother who takes refuge in an women’s shelter with her young daughter. They take solace in their culture and each other, but then her estranged husband re-appears.

Last year, Shayda won the audience award in the world cinema dramatic competition at Sundance.

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For Niasari, directing the film came with a unique challenge: processing her childhood trauma in front of her colleagues.

“Every day was a challenge. I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to make this film, especially being on set. I’ve done a lot of therapy in the writing of the film, and I had my therapist on set for some of the shooting time,” she said at Santa Barbara International.

“But, you know, no matter the preparation that I did, there were just some moments where the performances felt so real that I was just taken back to that five-year-old version of myself, and I would have to step off set and have a cry and breathe and have the support of you know, either my partner or the therapist or someone to be able to come back and be a leader and direct actors,” she added.

“It was like I was living these parallel lives… making a feature film is stressful enough, and then you’re dealing with all of these emotional hurdles at the same time.”

Niasari found catharsis after cameras stopped rolling during the post production process, which she credits to editor Elika Rezaee.

“She just made me laugh. She’s a really funny woman. She just helped me kind of overcome this darkness that I had carried through the shooting,” Niasari said. “I would say the editing was a really healing process, because I had her and that sisterhood. Also, the revolution was happening in Iran, which gave us so much motivation to finish the film. Sharing the film with audiences the past 12 months has been incredibly cathartic, just knowing that the film has touched so many people and it’s not just my story, it’s not about us anymore. It’s everyone’s story.”

Watch the full interview with Niasari at SBIFF above.

Shayda arrives in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 1.

Main Image: Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in Shayda courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.