In 2001, Iranian authorities captured Saeed Hanaei, dubbed “the spider killer” in local media, after he murdered 16 women in the eastern city of Mashhad. The man took full responsibility for the killings, claiming he targeted prostitutes “for the protection of my religion.” He was eventually executed for the crimes, but not before conservative Iranian media and extremist locals elevated him to a kind of folk hero and defended his stated cause.
Filmmaker Ali Abbasi was a college student in Tehran at the time and baffled by the response. “It was insane,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire, but even more surprising was how long it took for police to capture Hanaei, even though his murders followed such an obvious pattern that suggests he could have been stopped much sooner. “If this happened in Nebraska or whatever, it would be national news for a long time until they caught him,” Abbasi said. “I was scratching my head — but there are a lot to things to scratch your head about in Iran.”
It took Abbasi, who later moved to Denmark, two decades to create a work that clarified his response. His new movie about the murders and their fallout, “Holy Spider,” arrives in competition at Cannes with a more provocative context than the many other Iranian films that have premiered there over the years. The drama captures a seedy side of Iranian life that its powerful Ministry of Culture would never allow, including the routine of the sex workers who Hanaei (Bajestani) kills, and examines the rampant misogyny that likely played a part in the delay of his capture. Abbasi ended up shooting the movie outside the country to navigate those concerns.
The filmmaker first started thinking about the project when he saw the 2002 documentary “And Along Came a Spider,” which includes footage of Hanaei attempting to justifying his murderous behavior. “In a really strange way, I felt sympathy for the guy, really against my own will,” Abbasi said. “I think there was a psychotic element to the pleasure-seeking aspect of his murders, the twisted sexuality and whatnot, but there was also this strange innocence about him. It was more about how a society creates a serial killer.”
The movie, with its naturalistic storytelling and real-life plot, might seem like a far cry from Abbasi’s 2018 debut “Border,” a haunting fantasy about the plight of a troll woman coming to grips with her ostracized identity. (It was nominated for an Oscar in Best Makeup and Hairstyling.) But Abbasi was keen on connecting the dots between the two films. “There is a theme of alienation and being an outsider in both of them,” he said.
In the process of writing “Holy Spider,” Abbasi took some liberties with the true story, and added the fictional role of a female journalist (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) who investigates the murders and realizes how little interest there is in capturing the culprit. Her story becomes a conduit for exploring how religious bias impacts everyday life for women across the country. “The misogyny didn’t start with the Islamic Revolution,” Abbasi said. “The limitations that have been in place for women in Iran for the past 50 years are crazy.”
Abbasi ended up shooting the movie in Jordan, a solution that ultimately sat better with him than shooting on the streets of Mashhad and attempting to circumnavigate censorship by submitting an incomplete script, as some filmmakers have done.
“I don’t believe in fooling them into something,” he said. “That also legitimates censorship in a strange way. In an Iranian movie, women’s faces are always wrapped with cloth, and any sort of touching would be, of course, out of question. I have absolutely no interest in becoming an activist or whatnot, but I will not change these things.” He has been frustrated by the impact of censorship on other movies from the country. “With some movies, they act as if it’s normal for women to sleep with this headscarf in their bed,” he said. “It’s fucking not normal. Even the most religious women that I know from my own family don’t do that. That’s a parallel alternative reality that is induced by the state and used to hurt people.”
While Abbasi said he was excited for his Cannes premiere, “Holy Spider” brings serious risks for its Iranian cast. Hanaei is portrayed by Bajestani as a tragicomic war veteran whose murderous sense of purpose sits at odds with his pedestrian family life, and his decision to star in the project is a gamble for the veteran Tehran-based stage actor (war veterans are considered above reproach in Iran). “I’m really afraid of the consequences,” Abbasi said. “He is taking an insane risk. If this was an American thriller, it would be panned or praise, sell or not sell, but it’s not like the actor would be in danger of going to prison.”
The movie also invites controversy in Iran for the casting of Ebrahimi, who was once a major TV star in the country before a sex tape scandal in 2006 that led to public humiliation and her decision to resettle in France. The backlash also forced her to reboot her career, and when Abbasi first encountered her, she was working as a casting director. That was her initial job on “Holy Spider,” until the filmmaker realized that she was well-equipped to take on the role of an individualistic woman navigating male-dominated spaces. “We adapted the part to her,” Abbasi said. “She brought some of the stuff from her own private life, the experience she’s had after this private video leak and added it to the character. I don’t think it was as interesting before she did that.”
But the biggest hurdle was figuring out the Hanaei character and explaining his paradoxical nature to potential financiers. Over time, Abbasi found a natural point of comparison. “At some point when we were doing our financing runs for more European investors, I started talking about Travis Bickle,” Abbasi said, referencing the iconic “Taxi Driver” anti-hero. “Here was someone who found a meaning in war, and then came back, and that meaning evaporated.”
Mashhad, meanwhile, was a case study for a city overrun by crime, in part because of drug trafficking that has resulted from its proximity to several other countries’ borders. The widespread corruption throughout the city meant that police turned a blind eye to many injustices, including the spider killer’s initial murders. “It was not like it was a serene place and then one guy killed 16 women,” Abbasi said. “If you put it in that context, then you’re like, OK, you have a probably understaffed police force which is dealing with all this stuff, so nobody really gives a shit about some street prostitutes being killed when they’re trying to stop drug cartels.”
Abbasi said that he didn’t think Iranian audiences would be shocked by “Holy Spider” — if they got a chance to see it. “Look, a lot of people in Iran have had access to Western media and cable TV since early 2000s,” he said. “And also the internet. It’s not like nobody has seen half naked pop stars. People are used to seeing Julia Roberts making out with George Clooney many times over.”
But he acknowledged a radical aspect to the representational value of the movie. “What they aren’t used to is seeing somebody like themselves making out with someone else like themselves in their own language, in a setting that reminds them of their own life, because that’s a mirror of their own reality,” he said. “That’s really the transgressive element here that would not translate to a Western audience.”
All of which means that he hopes “Holy Spider” will make it back to Iran, regardless of how official channels choose to respond, even if an unauthorized censored version hits the market. “Realistically, there is zero chances of this version getting a release there,” he said, “but I’m sure it’ll find a way of doing it anyway.”
“Holy Spider” arrives in the midst of several new chapters in Abbasi’s career coming together at once. He has been developing a gender-swapped adaptation of “Hamlet” starring Noomi Rapace in the lead role, in addition to another new feature that may be announced during Cannes. At the same time, he’s contending with a filmmaking identity defined in part by his latest project, which isn’t the easiest sell. Abbasi said he’s fine with that as he evaluates his next stage. His recent experience directing episodes of HBO’s upcoming video game adaptation “The Last of Us” helped him understand his reticent to tackle more U.S. studio gigs.
“I didn’t know there were so many rules and regulations that come with studio work,” he said. “Now I understand why things are so complicated and so expensive. I might be culturally Iranian, but I’m a European filmmaker by sensibility. So working in the Hollywood system is a little bit like working in Iran for me. I can’t do it.”