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An Iranian exile channels her trauma into film


The actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi in Paris, Sept. 23, 2022. Ebrahimi, who had to flee Iran after an intimate tape was leaked, has been transfixed by the protests erupting there as her film “Holy Spider” is released in the U.S.

By Roger Cohen


“I know that fear; I know that humiliation,” Zar Amir Ebrahimi, winner of the best actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, said in a recent interview. “I know how men in Iran use their power to keep you quiet.”


Ebrahimi is an Iranian exile who in 2008 decided she had to flee after being subjected to a smear campaign based on her love life. Now that experience and her role in the film “Holy Spider,” which opens in theaters in the United States on Oct. 28, have intersected with disarming intensity as women in Iran burn their headscarves to protest the oppression of the Islamic Republic.


The story of Rahimi, the fictional investigative journalist at the heart of “Holy Spider,” is one of female defiance in the face of male violence. Based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in the Iranian city of Mashhad, a religious center, the movie traces with unflinching, sometimes harrowing, intimacy Rahimi’s efforts to penetrate the world of men obfuscating Hanaei’s crimes.


“We need to finish this story,” Ebrahimi said, her pale eyes burning, during the 75-minute interview in Paris. “This Islamic Republic has to end. Women today know their rights. They know what life and freedom of expression are. It will take time and blood, but there is no other way.”


It took time and flexibility to make “Holy Spider,” which is directed by Ali Abbasi, an Iranian exile based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Filming was impossible in Iran, given the government’s hostility to the project, and months of preparation in Turkey came to nothing when Turkish authorities, apparently under pressure from Iran, blocked the production. The young Iranian actress who was set to play Rahimi withdrew, abruptly overcome by fear of reprisal, just as filming was about to start in Jordan, according to Ebrahimi.


“I got so angry with her,” said Ebrahimi, who was then the casting director for the movie. “And I think that night when I got so crazy, I’m pretty sure that Ali saw something in me.”


So, in extremis, Ebrahimi, 41, who found fame in the early 2000s as a star of the Iranian TV soap opera “Narges,” took on the lead role. Given all of these obstacles, it is, Ebrahimi told me, “a miracle that we have it to screen.”


Abbasi said he wanted to challenge the image of “the Islamic Republic and its leaders as some sort of theocratic, dry people who are very conservative.” At a deeper level, he suggested, “these people are obsessed with sexuality.” Iran is a country, he said, where authorities “get some sort of pleasure out of humiliating women.”


For the director, who visited Mashhad as part of his preparations for the movie, “there is a Lynchian undercurrent of fetishized, suppressed sexuality in every aspect of the Islamic Republic.”


His words brought to mind a meeting I had in the holy Iranian city of Qum in 2009. A mullah sat on a raised dais as he explained in measured terms the rationale of the Islamic Republic. Then the subject turned to women. How could any man not lose control, he suddenly frothed, if women’s hair and the curves of their bodies were allowed to be seen in public? This was the gateway to hell, he shouted.


Ebrahimi’s life as an actor in Iran had fallen apart a few years before that meeting, when a video of lovemaking she said she had made with her boyfriend at the time was leaked by a friend, another actor, who somehow stole it when at their apartment. It became known as the “sex tape case,” and the hounding of Ebrahimi knew no bounds.


“All these people were watching my naked body and just kept copying the video and selling it in the street,” she said. “And I had to lie every day and just say it was not me, and I can’t tell you how painful it all was — not because I was ashamed of what I did, but because of the betrayal from my colleagues and this whole society.”


The government set about finding every man with whom she had shaken hands or been photographed, she said, every man she had ever kissed on the cheek. It was clear her career in Iran was over. She was about to confront her various accusers in court, facing a prison sentence and 97 lashes on the charge of having sexual relationships outside wedlock, when she decided to flee.


Ebrahimi flew to Azerbaijan, she said, and later from there to Paris, where she has since built a life. She has not returned to Iran, where most of her family still lives, and became a French citizen in 2017.


In recent weeks, as anti-government protests have spread across Iran and more than 200 people have been killed, Ebrahimi has been transfixed. Watching a new generation resisting arrest and shouting, “I don’t want this hijab; what’s your problem with my hair?” has given her hope.


Ebrahimi, who received threats from the Islamic Republic soon after she won the award at Cannes, including an allusion by the culture ministry to the fate of author Salman Rushdie, said the impact of living in Iran “affects men, too. If they drink or not, if they read something or not — there is this continuous pressure to deceive.”


Hanaei’s crimes were called the “spider killings” by local news media because of how he carried them out. He confessed to killing 16 women, and he was executed in 2002. In “Holy Spider,” the character is played with psychological intricacy by Mehdi Bajestani. He is desperate to believe that he is doing God’s will, and that of the Islamic Republic, by killing prostitutes. The pressure on him grows. He snaps at his wife. He feels suspicion growing.


“I think he’s kind of a victim of the whole society, of the whole mindset,” Ebrahimi said.


At one point, his wife surprises him at home after a murder. He hurriedly wraps the corpse in a carpet. His wife finds him tense and impenetrable; she coaxes him to have sex. On top of his wife, sweating, thrusting, he sees the foot of the strangled prostitute sticking out from the carpet.


“He has something of what I call Travis Bickle syndrome,” Abbasi said, a reference to the hero of “Taxi Driver.” “Back from a war, in an existential black hole, missing the violence. And in that scene, sexual pleasure and violence juxtapose each other.”


“It’s a movie about a serial killer,” Ebrahimi said, “but also about a serial-killer society. I know, because at some point, I got killed actually by each person in that society, except perhaps 10% who still had my back.”

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