Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi was the last person on director Ali Abbasi’s mind when he was casting the lead role in his third feature film Holy Spider, which opens to U.S audiences Friday, and is based on the real-life case of serial killer “Spider Killer” Saeed Hanaei, who strangled 16 sex workers, typically with their headscarves, from 2000 to 2001.
Ebrahimi plays the character of Rahimi, a female journalist who goes undercover in the holy city of Mashhad in order to catch Hanaei.
The searing thriller has taken on new significance as violence against women in Iran is once again in the spotlight amid mass protests against the country’s “morality laws.” The latest unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on Sept. 16, after she was detained for allegedly violating the country’s strict hijab rules. The protests have morphed into a wider rejection of corruption and political repression that underpins the Islamic Republic.
In Abbasi’s eyes, Ebrahimi—who went on to win the Best Actress award at Cannes in May for her performance and is generating Oscar buzz—was too soft and mature to play the young and reckless character he had in mind. “He wanted someone boyish, more strong physically,“ Ebrahimi recalls, adding that she was working as a producer on the project and had auditioned around 50 actors for the role she would go on to claim.
“I saw Rahimi as being very young and inexperienced, and really eager to prove herself,” Abbasi says. But when he saw Ebrahimi, 41, use her life experience to remind him that desperate people make dangerous choices, his vision shifted.
Ebrahimi is no stranger to Iran’s so-called morality laws. She fled the country for France 14 years ago after an intimate film she made with a previous partner was leaked—a crime punishable in Iran by imprisonment, lashes, or evening stoning. So when Holy Spider’s intended lead, a young Iranian actress, became fearful of acting without hijab and dropped out at the last minute, Ebrahimi proved she had enough grit and frustration to play Rahimi.
“I just saw my whole life, especially my last year in Iran, on the page,” Ebrahimi says of her successful audition. “I just thought she’s in me somehow, she’s not exactly me but her reasons exist inside me.”
It was the holy month of Ramadan when Ebrahimi’s sex tape was leaked but she says this did not deter people from watching her intimate moments play out on video. “People were meant to be praying, instead they were watching me. Every day I became more and more surprised by the way society behaved, even my colleagues were watching together,” Ebrahimi recalls.
At first, she denied that she was the woman in the video to protect herself, as the regime put her life under a microscope. They tried to romantically link her to long-standing male friends and find images of her partying without hijab to imply she was immoral. She fled Iran for France in the early hours on March 1, 2008, the day she was meant to appear in court.
The man who she says leaked her tape—a friend and fellow actor who did not feature in it—was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released after two months. Ebrahimi says it’s a far more lenient outcome than she would have received, despite the tape being released against her wishes. She adds that he also received public support and went on to become a celebrated actor.
“They found the guy who leaked it. When I left Iran… he was an actor and he became a bigger and bigger superstar. My colleagues and the government [all] supported him,” Ebrahimi says. She adds that there is a gendered double standard in the way morality laws, which came into effect as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are enforced.
But these attitudes may be changing, thanks in part to the women-led demonstrations. Both Ebrahimi and Abbasi say they have noticed a distinct shift in the way the film has been received on the fall film festival circuit since protests began.
Abbasi says that some of the international and Iranian viewers who saw the film at Cannes initially felt they were exploiting the tragedy to create a needlessly violent movie. But with everything in Iran today, “they’re like, ‘Oh boy, maybe there was a reason.’”
Abbasi says his priority was to create a film that gives women their bodies back. Iranian cinema typically censors the depiction of women without hijabs and full body coverings but Holy Spider rejects this within its opening scene as a sex worker gets ready to work. “It’s as important to see Rahimi’s toes with nail polish as it is to see what a prostitute’s life is actually like in a very religious city like Mashhad,” Abbasi adds. The Iranian government blocked filming in the nation, and interfered with plans to shoot in Turkey, Abbassi says. It was ultimately filmed in Jordan.
For Ebrahimi, a survivor of this all-consuming regime, winning accolades after being banned from Iranian cinema sends a message that justice does exist in a world that often feels unjust.
The mass protests against the regime have also made her hopeful. “People want to change everything. They don’t just want to change something in the system, they don’t want the system anymore,” she says.
“A wall has broken and there’s no way back. Sooner or later, it’s going to be better.”