‘Holy Spider,’ Iranian serial-killer film, finds its way through protests : NPR

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Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani as Rahimi and Sharifi in Holy Spirit.

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Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani as Rahimi and Sharifi in Holy Spirit.

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Holy Spirit It’s about a serial killer. The film follows a man who exploits female sex workers because he believes it is his God-given duty to “wage jihad against vice”.

The film came out at a time of increased state violence against civilians, especially women, in Iran. And it put the Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi in a complicated situation.

“It’s a different place for me to be,” he told NPR. “But I can’t leave him completely,” he said.

Making “Persian Noir”

Abbasi was a university student in Tehran when he first heard about the real-life issue that inspired him Holy Spirit. Saeed Hanaei, a former soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, became known as 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 holiest Shia shrines in the world. The city attracts millions of religious pilgrims every 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 for more democratic freedoms. Although many Iranians hoped that his leadership would bring about meaningful change, hardliners pushed back against shifting politics. Unemployment was high and poverty was still widespread.

One month after Khatami was re-elected for a second term in June 2001, Hanaei was arrested. Despite admitting that he confessed to the murders in a trial, he received sympathy from some of the ultra-conservative population, who considered him a hero. His trial sparked a media frenzy, both nationally and internationally.

Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed Hanaei in Holy Spirit.

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Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed Hanaei in Holy Spirit.

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Public reaction to the murders – and the time it took authorities to catch the killer – left an impression on Abbasi. “I really felt anger,” the writer-director told NPR. “About these women and their fate and how they were treated by the media and how they were treated by their – 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. At night, he roams the streets, targeting sex workers to clean the streets of sin. As she follows the case, Rahimi quickly realizes that the investigation – and justice – may be hindered by the local authorities as they turn a blind eye.

Abbasi said that it was difficult to make the film several years after the actual trial. Documents were not readily available and Hanaei’s family was difficult to access, so the story ended up shifting from a true crime film to a fictional film, which Abbasi describes as “Persian noir”.

“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 nurtured or developed the kind of person Saeed Hanaei is,'” he said.

Reception and influence

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

Since then Abbasi and his team have used shows and premieres as an opportunity to raise awareness for the misery of the people of Iran. At the Cannes Film Festival premiere in May, Holy Spirit received standing ovation, and Ebrahimi won the festival’s Best Actor award. And in December, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences took over Holy Spirit shortlisted 2023 for Best International Feature Film.

But some Western critics were appalled by graphic scenes showing sex workers being brutally strangled by their own headscarves. Others criticized what they saw as unnecessary sexual images of women’s bodies.

Along with protesters, Ali Abbasi and Zar Amir Ebrahimi will attend the Holy Spirit UK premiere at the 66th BFI London Film Festival on 08 October 2022 in London.

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Along with protesters, Ali Abbasi and Zar Amir Ebrahimi will attend the Holy Spirit UK premiere at the 66th BFI London Film Festival on 08 October 2022 in London.

Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI

“You know, especially some of the Anglo-American critics, they really felt that it was a treasonous, vulgar film,” Abbasi admitted. He believes that criticism of the film is not only something outdated, but also that there is a lack of attention and opinion on the history of Iranian cinema and censorship.

“For 50 years, there has been a complete absence of women’s bodies in Iranian films. You know, women have been reduced to talking heads – literally talking, crying, laughing in Iranian films,” Abbasi said, with something of a rhetorical flourish. (The previous version was 43 a year ago.) “They have been showing women inside their own houses sleeping with a scarf on.

So for a project like this, which was filmed in Jordan, Abbasi said an honest picture was needed to see women’s bodies clearly. “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 – we’ll pull back those curtains and show it as which he is.”

No wonder, Holy Spirit he was also the target of bad publicity from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which threatened retaliation against those working on the film. The director is now in self-imposed exile. “I can’t go back to Iran because I think I might be arrested immediately,” he said. “So this is what I’m trying to do as much as I can for the reason.”

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A parallel of challenge

Around the same time that Amini was killed, in the fall of 2022, Holy Spirit came out in theaters internationally. Suddenly, Abbasi said, his film was read primarily in the context of her death and its aftermath, both by audiences and critics.

Many Iranians – to Abbasi’s surprise – have responded well to the film. Observers on social media drew parallels, he said, between Saeed’s character’s violent misogyny and Iran’s strong repression. base 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,” Abbasi said.

“There’s this general feeling of defiance [where] it’s like the whole country – the whole country – is going against the rule, going against the culture, going against the bullets, going against the army, going against the director. I think there’s this challenge in our film because our film does the same thing,” he continued. taboos that they set. We just, like, blow it. And it’s I think people get that. Like, emotionally, they get that, you know?”

‘Holy Spirit’ available for streaming in February 2023.

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