Ali Abbasi – an Iranian director long resident in Denmark – is certainly not afraid of the dark. Following his slow-burn maternity horror Shelley (2016) and the disturbing Oscar-nominated romantic fantasy Border (2018), Abbasi’s latest is Holy Spider, based on a real-life early-2000s nocturnal killing spree carried out by a self-identified vigilante targeting sex workers in Mashhad, Iran. The film was touring film festivals last year against a backdrop of large-scale feminist protests in Iran and the detainment of multiple Iranian directors by the country’s government. We spoke to Abbasi about shooting in Jordan, navigating censorship, and the state of Iranian cinema.
There are those directors – Bahman Ghobadi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Reza Allamehzadeh – who are filmmakers in exile. Do you consider yourself a filmmaker in exile?
No. I consider myself a filmmaker. I think I’m lucky and privileged; not to be boastful, but there’s a defiance that comes with knowing that if we pulled off recreating Mashhad in Jordan under extremely harsh conditions and political pressure from different hostile governments, we can do anything. I often feel that authenticity, paradoxically, is something you have to construct – it’s not something you just go and find. Quality is something you can achieve by working, not by being in the right place at the right time.
Of course, the sad truth is that my access to Iran is limited. But does that mean that I’ll be looking at Iran through a diasporic lens? No. I don’t feel the nostalgia; I don’t want to find myself in that trap.
For those filmmakers who have stayed in Iran – the Panahis, Rasoulof, Asghar Farhadi – the risks are always great. Are you and other non-Iran-based filmmakers in touch with those filmmakers? Is there a sort of diasporic community of Iranian filmmakers?
We have connections. Bahman [Ghobadi] and I talk regularly. I don’t know Asghar Farhadi that well; I think he also wants to keep his distance from some of this [the ongoing protests in Iran]. But I think the speed and intensity of what has been happening in Iran has caught everyone so much by surprise that there hasn’t been time to sit down and organise, analyse and come up with solutions. Everyone is doing what they can, however they can, to keep up the pressure.
Films by Iran-based directors are inherently compromised, as they are not made freely. Despite this, the work of the Panahis remains very telling about life in Iran, and their use of certain spaces and lacunae is very deliberate. What do you make of this sort of compromised creativity?
I remember Abbas Kiarostami saying that he found censorship to be inspiring, because it gave him the opportunity to circumvent certain obstacles and in that way become creative. That way of thinking doesn’t work for me. Censorship is censorship; I think it’s very black and white. I have the same ideas about it now as when I was 14: I find it despicable, and I don’t want to find creative ways around it. I don’t want to be judging everyone – their situation is different from mine – but at the end of the day, I chose to leave Iran to be able to work the way I want to work. And I think that for most people, that choice is there.
By finding creative ways around censorship and incorporating it into your work, you risk the legitimacy of that work. You legitimise censorship as a condition. You show women sleeping with their headscarf on even though we all know that doesn’t happen in real life – but if we all know that doesn’t happen in real life, why is it happening in your movie?
Panah Panahi, too, has commented on Iranian censors wanting women to wear headscarves indoors in film. For how long has censorship there been getting even stricter?
The censorship goes back to before the Islamic revolution. In the 1960s and 70s, the Shah system had its own censorship, which was much more political. We had maybe 12-18 months of freedom, around 1978-79, and then after the Revolution, [the government was] quick to install a big, fat censorship system. And it’s been there ever since.
One place the Iranian government been extremely successful in selling a particular vision of Iranian society is cinema. All these prizewinning Iranian movies – and again, this may seem harsh – are complicit, in a way. They’re complicit in showing Iran the way the Iranian regime wants it to be shown. They’re complicit in showing women without bodies. They’re complicit in saying, “The version of Iranian society that we as critical filmmakers should be showing you is not very different from what the state wants you to know, and the limits of freedom of speech and social critique are this.” I think there’s something rotten with that system.
One of the things we really want to do [with Holy Spider] is to give women their bodies back. We’ve been accused in the mainstream British media of being exploitative, but some of the people who felt we’ve been trying to sell tickets by showing violence against women are maybe now starting to realise that this is reality they’re looking at. When you’re dealing with that kind of brutality, you cannot be poetic or metaphorical. You have to be direct.
You shot the film in Jordan. What challenges did that pose?
There were a lot of logistical challenges. We were in Turkey before Jordan, but we got kicked out – Turkey is sort of like Iran’s back yard. Jordan has really bad relations with Iran, which was good and bad for us. On the one hand, we were safe: Jordan’s government and cultural establishment are much more open than many others in the Middle East, and I really enjoyed working with my Jordanian crew – they understood what we were doing.
But sometimes it was very difficult to get certain things. For example, obtaining Paykan cars, which were omnipresent in Iran in the 1990s and early 2000s. They were the period-correct cars, only produced in Iran. But they’re not used much in Iran anymore, and if people want to export them, it’s usually for use in motion pictures. The Iranian government wants to control that, of course – and they wouldn’t allow it [for Holy Spider]. So we had to put them in containers as junk, and ship them out of Iran via the United Arab Emirates and then Saudi Arabia. But when the cars arrived at the Saudi/Jordan border, the Saudi border guy looked at the papers, saw that the shipment came from Iran – and then sent it back to the Emirates. We had to find another ship to take the cars around the Red Sea, receive them a month later in Aqaba at the southern tip of Jordan, and then transport them up [to the shoot].
That was just one of the obstacles. But it’s the price you pay for period accuracy. It’s also the reason movies before ours failed in some aspects. It’s not easy. Sometimes you want to do it but don’t have the resources; sometimes you just don’t give a shit. Like in Argo (2012). You don’t know the difference.
The film is primarily about women’s experiences, but was written by two men – you and Afshin Kamran Bahrami. How did you make sure you were accurately capturing women’s lived experience?
I don’t really adhere to the identity politics way of looking at this. I don’t feel I need to be a black lady in a wheelchair to make a movie about a black lady in a wheelchair. For me personally, it’s much easier to talk about my own emotions and my take on life when I project myself into another body. That’s why it’s much easier and more exciting for me to do movies about women than about a fortysomething guy living in Europe thinking about Iran.
A lot of the weight and gravitas of the Rahimi character comes not just from what we gleaned from research and wrote in the screenplay, but from Zar [Amir Ebrahimi, the actor]’s personal experience. There’s an emotional baggage she brought with her to the story that I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate, because that’s where my experience as a man has its limitations.
But when you live in a country like Iran, which is so antagonistic towards women, you feel it. Even if you’re a man, even if you’re part of the establishment, even if you’re secure. You feel it no matter who you are.
It’s been months since the film premiered at Cannes. Do you have any idea yet of whether the film has made it into Iran in some illicit form, and if so, what the reception among everyday people has been?
Not yet, somehow! But the movie has been seen by about a thousand people at festivals, a big chunk of whom are Iranian. In Hamburg, I had this 80-year-old Iranian lady coming to me, telling me how she enjoyed the movie, that it was truthful, and how proud she is. I really hadn’t counted on someone like her coming to see this movie, which is a pretty brutal, explicit, arthouse affair. It’s not a mainstream singalong.
I’ve been shocked by how positive people have been. I think there comes a day where the film leaks out to its real internet audience – people in Iran. And I’m very excited for that day.
► Holy Spider is available to watch on MUBI now.