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A man killed women he deemed 'immoral' — an Iranian film fictionalizes the story

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani as Rahimi and Sharifi in <em>Holy Spider.</em>
Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani as Rahimi and Sharifi in Holy Spider.

Holy Spider is about a serial killer. The film follows a man who preys on female sex workers because he believes it's his God-given duty to "wage a jihad against vice."

The film's release came at a moment of amplified state violence against civilians, particularly women, in Iran. And it put Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi in a complicated position.

"It's a contradictory place for me to be," he told NPR. Abbasi was not interested in making an on-the-nose political movie, and he's wary of seeming opportunistic. "But I cannot completely leave it," he said.

Making a "Persian Noir"

Abbasi was a university student in Tehran when he first heard about the real-life case that inspired Holy Spider. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Saeed Hanaei was dubbed the "Spider Killer" when he murdered 16 women between 2000 and 2001.

The systematic killings took place in Mashhad, home to one of the largest and most sacred Shia shrines in the world. The city draws millions of religious pilgrims each year. At the time, Iran was considered to be in a period of reform. President Mohammad Khatami had been elected three years earlier, in a landslide victory, after campaigning on the promise of greater democratic freedom. Although many Iranians hoped his leadership would bring meaningful change, hardliners lashed back against the shifting politics. High unemployment and poverty remained widespread.

One month after Khatami was re-elected for a second term in June 2001, Hanaei was arrested. Despite admitting to the murders in trial, he ended up gaining sympathy from a portion of the ultra-conservative population, who deemed him a hero. His trial provoked a media frenzy, both nationally and internationally.

Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed Hanaei in <em>Holy Spider.</em>
/ Utopia
Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed Hanaei in Holy Spider.

That public reaction to the murders – and the length of time it took authorities to capture the killer – left a deep impression on Abbasi. "I really felt that there was an outrage in me," the writer-director told NPR. "About these women and their fate and how they were handled by the media and how they were handled by everyone else."

Abbasi's film follows a journalist named Rahimi, played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, as she investigates a serial killer in the holy city. Played by Mehdi Bajestani, Saeed is a local construction worker by day. By night, he roams the streets, targeting sex workers to cleanse the streets of sin. As she follows the case, Rahimi quickly realizes that the investigation – and justice – might be hampered by the local authorities because they're turning a blind eye.

Abbasi said making the film many years after the actual trial was difficult to research. Documents were not readily available and Hanaei's family was hard to access, so the story ended up shifting from a specific true-crime movie to a fictionalized one, what Abbasi describes as "Persian noir."

"So that's when I went from, 'Okay, let's do the story of Saeed Hanaei,' to 'Let's do the story of the society that sort of nurtured or developed a Saeed Hanaei kind of person,'" he said.

Reception and repercussions

Iran has been in the spotlight since protests broke out in September, following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman while she was in custody of the morality police. Mahsa Amini – known to family by her Kurdish name, Jina – was accused of wearing her hijab improperly. The demonstrations, often led by women, have continued across the country and been met with deadly force by the government.

Abbasi and his cast have since used screenings and premieres as an opportunity to raise awareness for the plight of the Iranian people. At the Cannes Film Festival premiere in May, Holy Spider received a standing ovation, and Ebrahimi won the festival's Best Actress award. And in December, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences included Holy Spider on its 2023 shortlist for Best International Feature Film.

But some Western critics were troubled by graphic scenes that show the sex workers being brutally strangled with their own headscarves. Others criticized what they saw as the film's unnecessarily sexualized images of women's bodies.

Alongside protesters, Ali Abbasi and Zar Amir Ebrahimi attend the <em>Holy Spider</em> UK premiere during the 66th BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 08, 2022 in London.
Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images for BFI
Getty Images for BFI
Alongside protesters, Ali Abbasi and Zar Amir Ebrahimi attend the Holy Spider UK premiere during the 66th BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 08, 2022 in London.

"You know, especially some of the Anglo-American critics, they really felt that it was an exploitative, misogynistic movie," Abbasi acknowledged. He feels that criticism of the movie is not only somewhat old-fashioned, but also lacks the nuance and consideration of the history of Iranian cinema and censorship.

"For 50 years, there has been a total absence of women's bodies in Iranian movies. You know, women were reduced to talking heads – literally talking, crying, laughing heads in Iranian movies," Abbasi said, with something of a rhetorical flourish. (The previous revolution was 43 years ago.) "They have been showing women inside their own houses sleeping with a headscarf on. That never happens, not even if you're a super religious family."

So for a project like this, which was filmed in Jordan, Abbasi said an honest portrayal required making women's bodies explicitly seen. "And that has to do with every aspect of it – if it's violence, if it's sex, if it's the nail polish on Rahimi's toes – let's take those curtains away and show it as it is."

Unsurprisingly, Holy Spider also was the target of intense negative publicity from Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which threatened reprisal against those who worked on the film. The director is now in self-imposed exile. "I can't go back to Iran because I think I probably would get arrested right away," he said. "So this is what I'm trying to do as much as I can for the cause."

A parallel of defiance

Around the same time when Amini was killed, in the fall of 2022, Holy Spider came out in theaters internationally. Suddenly, Abbasi said, his movie was read very specifically in the context of her death and its aftermath, both by audiences and critics.

Many Iranians – to Abbasi's surprise – have reacted positively to the film. Observers on social media drew parallels, he said, between the violent misogyny of the Saeed character and the thuggish repression of the Iranian basij paramilitary forces.

"I've read a lot of comments on Twitter, for example, where people say, this is the real face of the Islamic Republic and this is really who they are," said Abbasi.

"There's this sort of general sense of defiance [where] it's like the whole country – a whole nation – is defying the rule, defying the culture, defying the bullets, defying the military, defying the leader. I think that they find this defiance in our movie because our movie is doing the same," he continued. "It's defying all the rules – that house of cards that the Iranian cultural security establishment has built for any cultural activity and many stupid, nonsense taboos that they set up. We're just, like, blowing on it. And I think people get that. Like, emotionally, they get that, you know?"

'Holy Spider' will be available for streaming in February 2023.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.