Ali Abbasi premieres ‘Holy Spider’: “Iran has been a #MeToo with legs for a century”

To date, the director Ali Abbasi (Tehran, 1981) has used tales of supernatural terror to address current social malaise. In Shelly (2016) paid tribute to The seed of the devil (Roman Polanski, 1968) casting an ominous shadow over a surrogate pregnancy, and in Border (2018) explored the rejection of the different from a community of fantastic creatures.

In his third film, holy Spider, which opens this Friday, the Danish-nationalized Iranian filmmaker has put genre cinema on hold to bring audiences into the dread of real life. Two decades after going into exile, Abbasi recreates a lurid event that happened in his country to revolt against the censorship and misogyny that led to his departure.

Between August 2000 and July 2001, Iranian citizen Saeed Hanaei strangled 16 sex workers in the holy capital of Mashhad. The crimes were coined by the Persian press as spider crimes, because their perpetrator lured the victims to their homes to kill them. His execrable acts were not condemned, however, by the population, who appreciated the “cleansing” of dirt and vice in its streets and came to praise him as a martyr.

[‘Border’, la rareza sueca que triunfó en Cannes]

In an interview granted before his execution to the founder of the portal IranWireMaziar Bahari, the serial killer assured that he did not feel sorry and claimed that if he had not been arrested, “I would have wanted to kill 150 more”.

Abbasi has taken this case as raw material for a thriller unsettling, which won the best actress awards at Cannes and Seville for its protagonist, Zar Amir Ebrahimi. In holy spider It continues around with the presence of monsters, but these do, they live among us.

Question. His adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story, Borderbrought you both praise and booing, has this division of opinion been repeated with holy spider?

Reply. The premiere of Border in Cannes it was, indeed, very convulsive. There were people who were enthusiastic, another who left the theater and another who yelled at me: “Fuck you!” This time, the reception has been sober. However, the reactions do not matter to me. With all my respect, I don’t give a damn what you write.

Q. What brought you to the film?

R. My mission was to incorporate it into the corpus of Iranian cinema and deconstruct the strange parallel reality that they have been creating for half a century. For 50 years we have been given a version of Iranian life marked by the acceptance of censorship, which happens because women appear dressed when they go to sleep. They never show their hair. They don’t go to the bathroom. They don’t have sex. In fact, they practically do not walk. And no one wonders if reality is as it is. Perhaps I am arrogant, but I think that with this film we have called it into question.

A cultural hybrid

Q. Iranian cinema has a tradition of confronting censorship by giving prominence to children to raise criticism in a hidden way. What do you think of that practice?

R. I’m fucking tired of the use of similes in Middle Eastern culture. There is nothing metaphorical about misogyny or the life of prostitutes in Iran. Until 20 years ago, I was Iranian, but now I have one foot in Scandinavia. I feel like a cultural hybrid, but I still know my home country well enough to stomach the legitimization of censorship. People are very smart in Iran, they always find a way to sneak in a good metaphor, to criticize the government through a group of children playing, but it’s not enough. There is something that frustrates me and makes me sick about other Iranian directors, that push and pull with censorship in Iran. It annoys me to read Kiarostami say that he used censorship as a creative tool. That’s a bullshit opinion. He was a great director and a great artist, but his stance is totally against my temper.

Tsar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani (center) in 'Holy Spider'

Tsar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani (center) in ‘Holy Spider’

Q. But perhaps it was easier for him because he is not based in Iran, while Kiarostami stayed.

R. I agree with you, but that too is a choice. I had a very good life in Iran. I played tennis twice a week, went to good restaurants, skied in winter. He had a level of comfort that he hadn’t enjoyed in a while.

[El cine de 2023: la infancia de Spielberg, el regreso de Erice y la controversia de Östlund]

Q. This story goes back 20 years, how has the #MeToo movement affected your writing?

R. Over the years I lost interest in the character of the murderer and his context, the investigation, gained interest. The journalist was part of the story, but she definitely gained more weight. When Zar joined the cast, he incorporated the whole #MeToo aspect with his personal experience. I am not on social networks, I have not followed the hashtag nor have I been involved in the movement, but you don’t need to be to be aware. Iran is a #MeToo with legs for a century.

Q. Why did you think that the search for justice should be carried out by a journalist?

R. I adore journalists, I respect them, but not in the cinema. The characters based on you are usually very two-dimensional. They are always driven by the search for the truth and are fucking irritating with their honesty and uprightness. They are not flesh and blood. The important thing in this film is not the work of the protagonist as a reporter, but her fears and her phobias.

Ali Abbasi premieres ‘Holy Spider’: “Iran has been a #MeToo with legs for a century”