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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Ali Abbasi on the sociopolitical commentary of ‘Holy Spider’

Just over 20 years ago, the Iranian city of Mashhad was shocked by reports of a serial killer, a Jack-the-Ripper-style murderer who systematically killed street prostitutes. Known popularly as the ‘Spider Killer’, the mysterious attacker was followed closely by the Iranian press. The man responsible, Saeed Hanaei, was finally arrested, tried, and convicted after murdering sixteen women. The arrest and trial were covered by a female journalist, and it is her work that became the central focus of Holy Spider, a crime drama and social critique based on the killings and their aftermath. The film won the Palme d’Or and ‘Best Actress’ awards at Cannes, as well as ‘Best Film’ awards at multiple film festivals internationally. The graphic violence of the murder scenes caused an exceptional number of walk-outs when the movie premiered at Cannes, and some critics deplored the explicit and brutal violence. However, other film writers felt the disturbing murders were an indispensable part of the film’s commentary on misogyny, and the screening received an enthusiastic seven-minute standing ovation from the Cannes audience.

As the film’s director, Ali Abbasi, recalls, the situation caught his attention and suggested the idea of making a film during Hanaei’s trial, mainly due to the public reaction. While most Iranians deplored the killings, a large number, including conservative media, embraced Hanaei as a hero and moral crusader, upholding Hanaei’s claim that he had a religious duty to eliminate these women. Abbasi comments in an introduction to the film, “My intention was not to make a serial killer movie. I wanted to make a movie about a serial killer society,” using these murders to deal with “the deep-rooted misogyny within Iranian society, which is not specifically religious or political but cultural”. 

The filmmaker is in an ideal place to deal with such a story. Born in Iran, he is familiar with the society, but he has worked outside the country, mainly in Scandinavia, for many years, gaining contacts and experience in film, and is willing and able to push beyond the artistic boundaries permitted in Iran. His previous productions have gained critical acclaim, including his best-known film, the 2018 fantasy-drama Border, which took the ‘Un Certain Regard’ award at Cannes plus three European Film Awards and was chosen as that year’s Academy Award entry for Sweden. He is currently shooting the television adaptation of The Last of Us for HBO. 

The plot of Holy Spider is unusual for a serial killer film in not being centred on either the killer or on the police seeking him. The main protagonist is investigative journalist Rahimi, who arrives in Mashhad to research the string of murders in the field. Rahimi, played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, is the determined, no-nonsense female reporter featured in countless films, but in the atmosphere of Mashhad, she is forced to tone down her assertiveness and to take care to appear modest and diffident around men and be prepared to ward off harassment and danger peculiar to women. These conflicts begin from her first appearance on screen when she is first refused a hotel room in Mashhad because she is an unmarried woman travelling alone and is advised to cover her hair to avoid trouble from the “morality police”. Her situation displays the milder forms of what director Abbasi calls cultural misogyny, while the serial killer represents its furthest extreme. It is worth noting that the script provides Rahimi with at least one male colleague who is willing to work with her and treat her with respect, counterbalancing her experiences with local police and authority figures during the investigation.

Despite its scathing portrayal of a common Iranian attitude toward women, Abbasi emphasises that Holy Spider is not intended to be political, or to critique Middle Eastern societies, commenting that “the dehumanisation of groups of people, especially women, is not unique to Iran, but can be found, in different variations, in all corners of the world”. The director intended the film as “a specific story about specific characters, and not a ‘theme’ movie about certain social problems”. This, he explains, is the reason he avoided making the police force’s hunt for a serial killer the central conflict, explaining: “We want to underline the complexity of the issue and the stakes on different sides, especially on behalf of the victims”. At the same time, the director intended to keep the film authentically Iranian, not to borrow noir tropes from Hollywood, but to create what he calls “a Persian noir” from familiar elements of Iranian culture.

This is why, although Saeed Hanaei’s murderous campaign is the basis of the story, it does not dominate the film. “Rahimi’s story is as important as Saeed’s,” Abbasi says, describing the film’s attempt to “understand how she deals with conflicts within herself, with her family, and society while she follows the case.” It is also the reason the murderer’s victims are far more full and relatable characters than in a typical serial killer film, despite their poverty and outcast status. The director notes, “Hanaei’s victims were not generic street women, they were individuals with their own personalities, and we hope to restore a part of their dignity and humanity that was taken from them. Not as saints, not as unfortunate victims, but as human beings, like all of us.” It is this approach to the victims that makes the film’s murders not only horrifying but genuinely tragic.

The film’s treatment of murderer Saeed Hanaei is intriguing. He is not the mad but ingenious serial killer of dozens of thrillers nor the simple, hate-addled butcher; the film’s investigation of the man’s family and home life, his religious feelings, and his state of mind provide a disturbingly sympathetic portrait. He is a seemingly loving husband and father but seems to be searching for a purpose, which channels itself into indignation at ‘corrupt women’ in his beloved city. Abbasi explains, “Saeed Hanaei is both a victim and a criminal. As a soldier… he has given his youth to his country… He then finds out that society doesn’t care about him… He exists in an existential vacuum, in spite of his belief in God.” At last, Hanaei “finds a new mission, a mission for Allah.”

Abbasi insists that Holy Spider is not intended as a specific attack on Iran or the Iranian government but a commentary on the treatment of despised categories of people anywhere. All the same, what became known as the ‘spider killings’ was ideal for making this point. The city of Mashhad is not only populous but is a conservative religious centre, one which attracts millions of pilgrims annually who visit the immense and revered Imam Reza Shrine. The film demonstrates how religious conservatism can be twisted into hatred and violence, even in someone who is not hateful by nature. An effective statement is made in the first few minutes of the film, which shows an aerial shot of the city at night, impressive but with the brightly lit streets taking the shape of a spider’s web. Abbasi commented on the ambiguities of Mashhad, “a huge pilgrimage destination, and also on the drug route from Afghanistan to Europe,” a city with “a dark underbelly, which also happens to be a famous religious centre.” Despite the anger of many residents toward ‘corrupt women’ on the streets, “prostitution is rampant” in Mashhad, “out in the open everywhere, even close to the mosque.” Abbasi speculates that it’s tolerated because it’s part of the economy and the tourist industry of the city. “Law enforcement looks the other way.”

Director Abbasi described in the interview how shocked he was to watch Hanaei’s testimony during his trial. He had expected a stereotypical serial killer, “some kind of Buffalo Bill character,” referencing the insane murderer from Silence of the Lambs, but Saeed Hanaei “came across as naîve and innocent” and spoke with a straightforward honesty about his crimes, something that is captured perfectly on film. “Not to say I liked or approved of anything he did,” Abbasi adds, “but it made the story and his character more complicated than I expected.” The film’s version of Hanaei captures this ambiguity, presenting an innately good man who is led by ideology into completely horrific acts. In this context, the gruesomeness of the murder scenes is important as a contrast to the simple wholesomeness of the killer’s family life and his usual mild persona.

The script for Holy Spider was in development for about fifteen years. Abbasi explains that initial drafts told the story but did not serve the purpose for which he began the project. “I wasn’t trying to recreate the events; I wanted to make a bigger point.” To that end, he deviated from the facts of the murder case, expanding Rahimi’s character “because I felt the story wasn’t solely about Saeed – it’s about misogyny.” For this reason, the script breaks with convention by identifying the murderer early in the film rather than portraying the sleuth who cleverly discovers his identity in the end. To Abbasi, that was not the point; the killer is known almost from the start, so the climax of the story is not the revelation. Abbasi says, “The climax of Saeed’s story for me has always been the fact that he was hailed by some as a hero. This story is not about the mystery of being a serial killer – it’s about the banality of Saeed’s life, how ordinary and unsophisticated he was.” 

Although dealing with specifically Iranian events, Holy Spider was not filmed in Iran, where both its content and its way of telling the story would have been objectionable. Abbasi had hoped to film on location in Mashhad and approached the necessary authorities with his script but was unable to get permission. He then tried to film in Turkey (where, Abbasi says, “Erdogan’s cultural policy was already a threat to the production”), but at the instigation of the Iranian government, were refused there as well. The film was eventually shot in Jordan, where the landscape was a good substitute for the area in and around Mashhad.

Not only was the script controversial, but the director also acknowledges that his Iranian lead actors took a considerable risk by appearing in the film. Popular stage and screen actor Mehdi Bajestani, who played Saeed Hanaei, was “open to doing things in his performance that are taboo in Iran” but took a chance that would impact his career. While the film may not be extreme by Western standards, Abbasi says that within Iran, “it’s the equivalent of a Hollywood star playing a paedophile who commits pedophiliac acts in the movie.” Lead actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi accepted the role of Rahimi and was in a different situation, one that relates somewhat to the theme of the film. She had been a hugely successful film and television actress years earlier, but when an explicit video of her was leaked, it caused a scandal that ended her acting career in Iran, and she left the country for France, where her success has expanded. While working as casting director on Holy Spider, the director identified her as ideal for the role. He remarks that the casting decision “changed the character – Zar channelled into her performance some of her frustrations from her private and public life after the video leaked.” Her version of Rahimi does, in fact, get across subtly but clearly her unstated anger with the attitudes of Iranian men she is trying to work with, as well as the fear and caution that is continuous background noise.

Holy Spider is a decided success, both as a suspenseful crime thriller and as social commentary. Abbasi’s intentions of making it a critique not limited to Iran come through by making the characters relatable and by avoiding culturally specific features where possible. For example, the setting has what the director calls “a nondescript industrial vibe.” The soundtrack avoids ethnic music identifiable as Middle Eastern, turning instead to 1990s grunge and industrial music for inspiration. Danish composer Martin Dirkov took the music “in a non-Western direction,” resulting in what Abbasi calls “Iranian grunge.” But the basis for the entire soundtrack, the director says, was the sound of the serial killer’s motorcycle, which became an ominous warning that he was searching for a new victim.

When asked what he would like people to take away from Holy Spider, Abbasi said he hopes it won’t be seen as a didactic “message movie” in spite of its themes. Although living outside Iran and deploring some of its attitudes, he avoids exaggerating its problems: “…while I don’t think Iranian society is a sick place, I do believe the representation of reality in Iran has become sick in terms of how women’s bodies are depicted on-screen. They have been dehumanised into non-existent figures with faces buried in cloth.” He makes one other point about the Hanaei killings: the fact that the families of the victims were rarely mentioned. Because the women murdered were prostitutes, “they became numbers and people stopped caring about them, much less their families.” The film’s final act rectifies this oversight, giving faces and a real identity to the murder victims and their loved ones. In humanising and illuminating even the most despised characters, the film seems to have succeeded in its task of throwing a spotlight on misogyny, injustice, intolerance, and the violence that arises from them and bringing it all out into the open. Perhaps the most frightening part of the film is not the grisly murders but the final, deceptively innocent scene, which suggests the ways in which misogynistic violence can be absorbed and passed on in forms that may be difficult to eradicate.

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