The citizens of Mashhad, Iran, found themselves unexpectedly swept up in a scandal in 2000 and 2001 when 16 female sex workers were targeted and killed throughout the city by the so-called "Spider Killer." For filmmaker Ali Abbasi, who was studying as a student in Tehran at the time of the killings, the story became the basis of a project that he would spend the next 20 years working to get made.

That film, Holy Spider, untangles the Spider Killer murders and the man, Saeed Hanaei, behind them. But it equally focuses on the moral and political divide that ignited in the wake of Hanaei's arrest. "I don't think we ever wanted to do a true crime movie," says Abbasi, who directed the film (his follow-up to 2018's Border) and co-wrote the screenplay with Afshin Kamran Bahrami.

The first few drafts of their script, he admits, were more straightforward in focusing on the central killer, who claimed to be on a religious crusade to "cleanse the city." Holy Spider eventually expanded to follow a female journalist, Rahimi (ex-pat Iranian actress Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her performance). In the film, Rahimi travels to the holy city of Mashhad to investigate the serial killings and uncover the truth of why the killer remains at large.

"We thought the more interesting story came from asking: What kind of society, setting, and characters would encourage his behavior? Where does this thinking flourish?" Abbasi explains. "As a result of that process, the script transformed from a story about a serial killer to a story about a serial killer society."

In conversation with A.frame, Abbasi discusses the long artistic journey he took bringing Holy Spider to the screen and the political act of depicting women's bodies within Iranian cinema. (The filmmaker, who lives in Denmark, shot the film in Jordan, thus bypassing Iranian state censorship.)

A.frame: You were a student in Iran when the Spider Killer murders took place. What do you remember about living through that period? And how did the conversations at that time affect how you viewed it?

I don't remember much about the buildup. At some point, it became news, of course, but that wasn't the case immediately after the first killing. It took a pretty long time. My friends and I were discussing it, but we didn't really know the specifics. He was finally caught because he was just constantly telling people what he was doing. The real conversation began when he was caught. I was living in Tehran and I was part of a literary circle — my friends were intellectuals and writers — and we were really shocked to find out when he was caught that he was using his court sessions as press conferences and boasting about what he did.

There was support for him. There was a minority of people that thought he did the right thing, that he did his duty. Some papers that I read talked about him as if he did nothing wrong, and that was pretty freaky. Even by Iran's sort of conservative standards, what he did went over the limit. You know, you'd like to think that there must be some sort of facts, rules, or a moral baseline, at least, that society agrees on. It seems to be accepted all around the world that, if you kill innocent people, then you're guilty. That's very simple. It was a strange moment when people started questioning that.

How many drafts of the script would you say you and Afshin Kamran Bahrami wrote throughout the many years you spent working on it?

Many. We originally talked about doing a novel together about it, and we wrote something that was sort of like a transcript of what Saeed Hanaei did from A to Z. From there, we started developing it as a script, and we started by focusing on Saeed. We wrote a few drafts and tried to be a bit more classical about it and ask, 'What triggered him? How did he do it?' As we were developing it, though, we began to think that his motivation wasn't that interesting, because the story really isn't about one incident that motivated or triggered him. It's about the whole thinking behind his killings.

Jumping off of that: The film's scope feels true crime-esque, but it also feels like a genre movie. What were your goals for Holy Spider, genre-wise?

That was a difficult problem to crack. We asked ourselves: How are we going to deal with the reality here? From the beginning, we wanted to make a Persian film noir. I don't think we ever wanted to do a true crime movie. The film is definitely being sold as a true crime thriller, but I really feel like it exists as part of a different game. For me, if you do a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer and you call a character Jeffrey Dahmer, then you cannot alter the details of his life. That was not what we wanted to do with Holy Spider. We wanted to do the film noir version of this story. That said, there is something about the reality of what happened that is so complex, multi-layered, and strange that it feels compelling. So, even though we felt like we didn't need to make a factual documentary or retelling of history, we also knew that there are moral issues with this story. We can't make Saeed an innocent guy who had a dream and then killed people by mistake, you know? There are bigger moral implications involved in this. Balancing those different impulses, though, took a lot of time.

Zahra Amir Ebrahimi and Ali Abbasi during the Toronto International Film Festival.

There are several scenes in the film that are very hard to watch. How did you work with your actors when you were preparing to shoot them?

My way of approaching challenging scenes, whether they're violent, emotionally difficult scenes, sex scenes, or stunt scenes, is to prepare and do my homework, but also try not to make shooting them a bigger deal than it is. They definitely need a certain kind of attention and preparation, but I don't want to encourage the idea that because we’re going to do a murder scene, for instance, that means that day on set is a 'special day' or something. For me, it's a normal day. We still take extra care when we're filming them, but there’s a balance you have to find between how self-conscious you need to be about certain sequences and how conscious you want your actors to be about the fact that they're doing something out of the ordinary.

I think the best depictions of violence, for example, are not necessarily the ones that are the most brutal, exaggerated, or even the most emotionally compelling. For me, it's the ones that are very clumsy in a way, because there's an aspect of reality to them that I think is difficult to get right. What was important in Holy Spider was to make sure that none of those scenes felt overly dramatized. Real violence is clumsy. It's not entertaining, and it's hard to watch. You know, I understand and even sort of sympathize with the criticisms about Holy Spider that there are some scenes in it that are hard to watch or that maybe dwell too long on Saeed's violence against women. But, for me, the alternative of having scenes where it seems easy to kill women would be much worse in a way.

The film's depiction of women, in general, feels very purposeful.

One thing that you need to understand, in the context of Iranian cinema, is that this is a political project. It's a project that grapples with the whole depiction of women's bodies in Iranian cinema, because they have always been covered. There have been some great Iranian movies in recent years, so I'm not trying to be critical of all of them, but the fact of the matter is that they adhere to a certain censorship and certain view of women's lives that is not true. Nobody in Iran, even if they're super religious, sleeps with their headscarf. They don't always walk around with 10 meters of cloth around them. Women have their own lives. They have their sexuality, and their jobs. And they have bodies. They have a physicality, and that physicality has been absent from Iranian cinema. It's been absent from Iranian cinema's presentation of life. With Holy Spider, it felt like we had to be concrete about the bodily experiences of our female characters, whether it involved violence, sex, or showing their painted toes. I think that in itself is a political act.

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