Film noir ‘Holy Spider,’ based on decades-old killings, can be a lesson for current Iran

Inspired by events in Mashhad, Iran, two decades ago, Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” is an unconventional film noir that almost didn’t happen — a thriller that follows a crusading female journalist investigating the “Spider Killer,” an unknown man who believes he is doing God’s work by purging the streets of female prostitutes. And during the process of getting the movie made, Abbasi, best known for the genre-bending drama “Border,” felt he was reliving the infamous experience of filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who spent nearly 30 years trying to film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

Abbasi jokes, “I’m used to making little left-of-center stuff and people think it’s crazy, but at times this project really felt like I’m living in ‘Lost in La Mancha’ [the documentary chronicling Gilliam’s struggle]. It’s never going to happen, but there’s a really exciting behind-the-scenes movie that comes out of it.”

Initially, the lead character, Rahimi, was intended to be a younger, more naïve and inexperienced reporter who would foolishly risk her own life to prove herself. Over the course of the three-year pre-production, the filmmaker auditioned hundreds of candidates before he landed on his Rahimi. Even with some scenes featuring her character without a headscarf, sacrilegious to many Muslims, and illegal in Iran, the actor was willing to take the chance of not working there again. That was until she changed her mind a week before the shoot was set to begin in the safe confines of Jordan. Despite his desperation, no one expected Abbasi to find his replacement in the project’s casting director, Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who professionally uses Zar as a first name.

“When this happened, this was the No. 15 setback we had,” Abbasi says. “I had COVID two days before the shoot, so I postponed everything. I thought, ‘OK, what are my options here? Can I get someone to come from Germany, or whatever?’ I was looking at the auditions and then I was also looking at Zahra’s tapes, because Zahra actually taped. She was reading against the people who were reading for the other journalists, and to be completely shameless, I was really practical. I was like, ‘She’s here, I know her. She’s been my partner for three years. She knows the script in and out and she’s a great actress.’ She’s not the type I was looking for, but let’s turn it around and say she is the person and adapt the role to her.”

Suddenly, Rahimi got older and, from Abbasi’s perspective, gained a gravitas she didn’t have before. It was exciting because it grounded the character in “flesh and blood.” Frankly, Abbasi admits they were lucky, although it didn’t feel that way at the time.

“My little context with journalists in Iran was that you need to be really thick-skinned to be able to do anything in this country because as a woman, and especially as a woman that is doing social and crime reporting, you are really dealing with the most misogynist part of the misogynist society, with the court system, with the police and all that,” Abbasi says. “I think the character we end up with, it’s someone who grew out of Zar Amir Ebrahimi the actor. That really changed the trajectory of the character in big ways.”

Ebrahimi’s performance was so spectacular that she took the best actress honor at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Fast forward a few months and Abbasi’s homeland has experienced unprecedented civil unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old killed in police custody after being detained for violating the Islamic Republic’s dress code for women. Thousands of Iranian women have publicly taken off their headscarves in a movement that has grown into a larger fight against the Iranian government’s brutal rule. The protests have not died down as of press time, despite the country’s attempts at quelling social media.

“I left Iran also partly because I didn’t want to deal with censorship and the limitations that the Iranian government would put on you, and this is really also what the movie’s about,” Abbasi says. “I mean, our political project is more than anything to break this wall of censorship, that is like a censorship operation the Iranian government has been pulling off for the past 40 years very successfully.”

For Abbasi, the fact that the protests started as a reaction to the extreme misogyny and extreme brutality in the country means it absolutely has something in common with the subject matter in “Holy Spider,” Denmark’s Oscar submission. He wants to be careful not to surf the wave of what is occurring there, however. It’s just one small part of the fight. But the defiance he sees in the streets has sparked images beyond his wildest dreams. The other day, he saw footage of 50,000 people protesting in his hometown outside of Tehran.

“Unfortunately, I cannot go back to Iran. I think they know my face and it wouldn’t end well,” Abbasi says. “I’m really frustrated that I can’t do more. But I think, for me, it’s really important to see that there is an overlap with the movie, there is a synergy. Many times, when the movie comes up, Iran comes up, I think that’s wonderful if I can in any way contribute to that. But I don’t think anyone, including me, including Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, anyone would’ve thought that this would’ve happened two months ago.”

He pauses a moment and adds, “I was having this Q&A last night. I was telling people that the last time my perception of reality of the world changed this much was I think when I saw footage of 9/11. Where almost your belief is suspended. That’s as huge as it is with me right now.”

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