Inspired by the events of Mashhad, Iran two decades ago, Ali Abbasis’ Holy Spider is an unconventional film noir that almost never happened – a thriller that follows a crusade journalist who investigates the ‘Spider Killer’ an unknown man who believes he is doing God’s work by cleaning the streets of female prostitutes. And while filming the film, Abbasi – best known for the genre-bending drama Border – felt like reliving filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s infamous experience of nearly 30 years trying to make The Man Who Killed Don film Quijote.”
Abbasi jokes, “I’m used to doing little things left of center and people think it’s crazy, but at times this project really felt like I was 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’s coming out of it.”
Originally, the main character, Rahimi, was going to be a younger, more naïve, and inexperienced reporter who foolishly risks her own life to prove herself. Over the course of three years of pre-production, the filmmaker auditioned for hundreds of candidates before landing on his Rahimi. Although some scenes show her character without a headscarf, which is sacrilegious for many Muslims and illegal in Iran, the actress was willing to take the risk of not working there anymore. Until she changed her mind a week before filming began in the safe borders of Jordan. Despite his desperation, no one expected Abbasi to find his replacement in the project’s casting director, Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who uses Zar as her first name professionally.
“When that happened, that was the #15 setback we had,” says Abbasi. “I had COVID two days before shooting, so I postponed everything. I was like, ‘Okay, what are my options here? Can I get someone from Germany or whatever?’ I watched the auditions and then I also watched Zahra’s recordings because Zahra actually recorded. She read against the people who read for the other journalists, and to be totally shameless, I was really hands-on. I thought, ‘She’s here, I know her. She has been my partner for three years. She knows the script inside out and she’s a great actress.” She’s not the type I was looking for but let’s flip it and say she is the person and adapt the role to her.”
Suddenly, Rahimi got older and, from Abbasis’ point of view, gained a Gravitas that she didn’t have before. It was exciting because it established the character in Flesh and Blood. Frankly, Abbasi admits they were lucky, although it didn’t feel like it at the time.
“My little connection with journalists in Iran was that you have to be really thick-skinned to be able to do anything in this country because as a woman, and especially as a woman who does social and crime reporting, you really have to deal with the most misogynistic Part of the misogynist society, with the court system, with the police and all that,” says Abbasi. “I think the character we end up with is someone who’s outgrown Zar Amir Ebrahimi the actor. That really changed the trajectory of the character a lot.”
Ebrahimi’s performance was so spectacular that she received the Best Actress award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Fast forward a few months and Abbas’ homeland has seen unprecedented civil unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was killed in police custody after being arrested for violating the Islamic Republic’s women’s dress code. Thousands of Iranian women have publicly shed their headscarves in a movement that has evolved into a larger struggle against the Iranian government’s brutal rule. The protests have not died down as of press time, despite the country’s attempts to crack down on social media.
“I also left Iran partly because I didn’t want to deal with the censorship and restrictions that the Iranian government would put on you, and that’s what the film is about,” says Abbasi. “I mean, our political project is mainly to break through this wall of censorship, it’s like a censorship operation that the Iranian government has been very successful in the last 40 years.”
The fact that the protests began in response to extreme misogyny and extreme brutality in the country means Abbasi has something in common with the theme of Denmark’s Oscar submission Holy Spider. But he wants to be careful not to surf the wave of what is happening there. It’s just a small part of the fight. But the defiance he sees on the streets has sparked images beyond his wildest dreams. He recently 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,” says Abbasi. “I’m really frustrated that I can’t do more. But I think for me it’s really important to see that there’s an overlap with the film, there’s a synergy. Often when the film comes, Iran comes, I think it’s wonderful if I can contribute in some way. But I don’t think anyone, including me, including Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, anyone would have thought that this would have happened two months ago.”
He pauses for a moment and adds: “I had these questions and answers last night. I’ve been telling people that my perception of the reality of the world changed so much the last time I think I saw 9/11 footage. Where almost your faith is suspended. It’s as huge as it is for me right now.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-30/holy-spider-ali-abbasi-iran-protests Story of decades-old killings ties to current Iran protests