‘Holy Spider’ Director Ali Abbasi Says Protests in Iran Have Made His Film About Murdered Sex Workers ‘Part of a Bigger Thing’

TheWrap magazine: “The magnitude of what’s happening in Iran, it’s so huge that I forget about the movie sometimes,” Abbasi says

This interview with “Holy Spider” director Ali Abbasi originally appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Ali Abbasi would like to make something clear: “Holy Spider” is not a true-crime film. Though the story is based on the horrifying real case of Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad in 2000-2001, claiming he was doing God’s work to eradicate sinful women, Abbasi was not interested in making a serial killer movie. He wanted to make a noir that explored a “serial killer society” in which a devoutly religious man living in one of the holiest cities in Iran could admit to atrocious crimes and be hailed by a sizable portion of the population as a hero. When we spoke to Abbasid, who was born in Iran but now lives in Denmark, the protests for women’s rights that exploded in September after a young woman died while in police custody were still sweeping through his birth country. (But the morality police had not yet been abolished.)

Zar Amir Ebrahimi (second from left) in “Holy Spider”

How does it feel to be talking about your film — in which the problem of ingrained misogyny is central — while people are demonstrating all over Iran, in reaction to the death of Mahsa Amini? (Amini died while being held by the morality police for wearing an “improper” hijab.)
The magnitude of what’s happening in Iran, it’s so huge that I forget about the movie sometimes. Since all this started, I feel like (the film is) part of a bigger thing. And if I can somehow raise awareness about (the protests) through talking about my movie, if I can tweet, if I can, you know, throw my shoes at the wall of the Iranian embassy, whatever, I do it. This is not something that we expected, needless to say, but I think it’s interesting how it’s changed the context of the movie, because from the very beginning, I was interested in a film noir treatment of some of these things in Iranian society. And I think that some of the conversation (about “Holy Spider”) has changed because some of the same people who felt like, Oh, this is a misogynist movie and it in itself perpetuates violence because it’s so interested in seeing women getting killed. (Some reviews have made this claim.) With what’s happening in Iran and seeing what’s going on in the streets, they understand the context and maybe understand better what we’re aiming for.

The murder scenes are brutal. They’re so realistic, I had to look away. Why did you choose to shoot them this way?
This is something that I’m very adamant about: I don’t feel like I have a moral obligation to be “tasteful” about things because this is my subjective interpretation of (the case). And this is the expression that, cinematically, I’m interested in — explicitness. My theory about movies is you either show or you don’t show. The in-between thing doesn’t work for me. The poetic, metaphorical thing doesn’t work for me. There was another thing also in play, which is breaking this wall of censorship — the way that for almost half a century, the Islamic Republic has depicted life in Iran, especially women’s life, with women sleeping with their headscarf and clothes on, and being wrapped in, like, 10 meters of cloth. They don’t have any physicality, there’s no sexuality, there is no sensuality. You don’t have a feeling of a body for these people. I felt that it was important to break that and be concrete and not metaphorical, and give this physicality back to the women characters.

The Iranian government is not a fan of your film, to put it mildly. When it debuted in Cannes (where star Zar Amir Ebrahimi won best actress), they condemned it. 
We got a lot of heat from Iran. They were, like, comparing us with Salman Rushdie and (making) threats — especially with Zar Amir Ebrahmi, who is more of a public person. (On social media), she gets death threats every day. Like, we kill you, your dog and whatnot. (“Holy Spider”) hasn’t come out (there). I did try to make the move in Iran, though. I went and talked to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as it’s called. And I think, actually, for the first and only time in my life — and hopefully for last time — I was prepared to make a compromise and take some of the things that would they would consider explicit out in return to be able to shoot in Mashhad and have the authenticity. And that, of course, didn’t work out.

This story has been out for 20 years. It’s been reported many, many times, it’s been referenced many times, there’s a documentary, there’s even a feature film about this, which came out a few years ago in Iran. I think that the difference between all those things and our movie is not about the storytelling. It’s not about the details or even explicitness or not. I think it’s about the tone. I made the point of not having respect for these people (in power), not taking Iranian censorship seriously, not being in dialogue with them. I think they feel this lack of respect and I think that’s what really makes them angry.

I mean, they spent an insane amount of propaganda dollars against us, especially after Zar won, based on a 40-second teaser of the movie. Honestly, I think we were the most debated topic in Iran around the time of the festival. But things have changed so drastically that I think — I hope — they have many other headaches now. 

Read more from the International Film issue here.

Catie Laffoon for TheWrap