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Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider wasn’t meant to be prophetic.
The director’s serial-killer drama from Utopia is inspired by the true story of Saeed Hanaei, who murdered prostitutes in the Iranian city Mashhad, claiming he was acting on behalf of God to “cleanse” the holy center of their corruption. Zar Amir-Ebrahimi stars as Rahimi, a fictional journalist who investigates the murders and comes to realize that the authorities have little interest in catching the suspect.
At its premiere at Cannes, Holy Spider shocked and amazed in equal measure with its unflinching depiction of the violent misogyny Abbasi sees at the heart of modern Iran. It was already part of the awards conversation when Denmark — Abbasi is an Iranian exile based in Copenhagen — put the film forward as its official entry for the 2023 Oscars.
Then, on Sept. 16, the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody. She’d been arrested by Iran’s religious police for not wearing her hijab properly. Her death sparked street protests that, despite brutal retaliation by authorities, have grown in size and strength, representing the most sustained challenge to Iran’s theocratic regime in a generation.
Suddenly, Holy Spider feels starkly relevant.
“Since the protests, people have begun to watch the movie in a different way,” says Amir-Ebrahimi, “I’ve started to watch it in a different way.”
Amir-Ebrahimi, 41, has firsthand experience of Iran’s religious oppression. A popular TV actress in the early 2000s, she saw her career fall apart after an intimate video of her and her boyfriend was leaked online. Fearing for her life and facing a potential prison sentence and 97 lashes for the charge of having a sexual relationship outside wedlock, she fled the country and is now based in Paris.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Amir-Ebrahimi on the urgency of Holy Spider‘s “feminist message,” how women are leading the fight against Iran’s theocracy and whether, this time, the protests can bring about real change.
Holy Spider is inspired by the real murders in Mashhad more than 20 years ago. But with the protests in the streets of Iran now, it feels newly urgent.
I know. I feel so sad about all these events in Iran. But at the same time, I’m really optimistic and think having this movie, which is somehow related to the situation, is a real opportunity to talk about the conditions of women and men in Iran, what is really going on. It was very bizarre: We were at the Toronto Film Festival on the day [Mahsa Amini died]. And it was amazing how people started to watch this movie in a different way. Not only the audience. I’ve started to watch it in a different way. Ali Abbasi always said he didn’t want to make a feminist movie, a movie about women, but for me, from the very beginning, this movie was about women, about how women are seen in Iran. Just the way Ali frames women, showing them without hijab, without scarves, which you never see in Iranian film. But in Holy Spider, we see their body, their hair, their skin and all these different faces of women.
When we premiered it in Cannes, there was a lot of criticism of the violence in the film — some people said it was “pornographically violent.” Nobody says that anymore. The violence, the brutality, is happening right in front of us now, on the streets. If the audience had the impression that we were somehow exaggerating, or just projecting our idea onto the country, events have shown that wasn’t the case.
Do you also view your own character, Rahimi, differently now?
Rahimi fights for freedom, for the right to say the truth. And I see that everywhere today. Preparing for this role, I was always looking for Rahimi, for her motivation, why she risks so much in her fight for truth. I felt this is a fictional character; I didn’t know if I could find a model of Rahimi in the real world, especially in Iran. Now, I see those women fighting for their freedom in the streets, without their headscarves, defiant. It’s like we have thousands of Rahimis in the streets. Having the movie come out now, in the U.S., Europe and everywhere, is really important because it’s led us to talk about the situation in Iran. I think, especially in the West, people were silent. Nobody wanted to see the reality. But now you can’t ignore it. People seem to think that these protests will just pass quickly, as others have in the past. But they won’t.
But there have been major protests in Iran before that didn’t change things. Why are you so confident it will be different this time?
We’ve had many demonstrations in the past 10 years, that’s true. But they were always about changing the leaders, changing the politicians. This time, people don’t want to change a leader, they want regime change. This is a new beginning. People have gotten to the point where they see they can’t go further with this regime, with this government. When you see the authorities killing girls and boys [at the demonstrations], it’s obvious the government can’t be trusted. How can you trust a government that is killing its children?
The Iranian people have always been afraid of having another revolution, because our revolution [in 1979] was stolen from us and everyone was traumatized by the experience. But there is a younger generation now that sees the regime and its patriarchal society as the problem. It’s very much related to our movie, which talks about the patriarchy, about misogyny, about how women’s bodies are controlled by the state. Now you see on the streets, women and men side by side fighting for women’s rights and for human rights, all there together. For me, this is really, really new. The protests started as a fight for women’s rights. But now the call we repeat is: “Women. Life. Freedom.” People see fighting for women’s rights means fighting for freedom, for life itself.
Does that apply to the Iranian film industry as well? There are some very outspoken dissidents, like [imprisoned film director] Jafar Panahi, but many there have been hesitant to criticize the regime.
They are under lots of pressure. The first day, when Mahsa Amini got killed, a lot of actors and directors posted something on it, but the day after, things got completely quiet. Many erased their posts or even closed their Instagram accounts. I spoke to a friend from the industry who still lives in Iran and she told me she got a call from the government, from the security services. A lot of people got those calls. They told her to stay quiet and not motivate people to go into the streets. I understand as a celebrity, as a filmmaker, you can become a target, the authorities can come and arrest you. But at the same time, I see ordinary people going into the streets, risking their lives. So what are you afraid of? Our celebrities, our filmmakers, have a voice, and the people are waiting for them to use it, to stand with them. I think it’s sad that so few are doing that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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