• Interviews

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi on “Holy Spider”: “It is about the many faces of women”

Iranian actress Zahar Amir-Ebrahimi had to flee Iran in 2006 because of a leaked tape with private content of a sexual nature on it. Not only was she humiliated and harassed, she was also facing a prison sentence and 100 lashes for her ‘crime’.

Just 16 years after she fled from Iran, she has won the best actress at the Cannes international film festival and became the first Iranian actress to receive this honor. Her win is for her performance in the Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi’s film Holy Spider in which she plays a freelance investigative journalist by the name of Rahimi from Tehran, Iran.

When the police don’t manage to catch a serial killer of prostitutes, Rahimi shows up in the holy city of Mashad with the intent to crack this long-running case. This is the premise of Holy Spider, which is a fictional story inspired by the real-life story of the Iranian construction worker Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), who in 2001 was arrested for killing 16 prostitutes in Mashad and became a kind of folk hero for religious groups, who idealized him for his moral crusade or holy mission of cleansing the city. This was exactly what inspired Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi to make a film about it, and what finally also brought Zahar Amir-Ebrahimi on board: she wanted to tell the story from the women’s perspective. We spoke to Zar Ami-Ebrahimi from her apartment in Paris just before she traveled to Australia to start her new project.


Even though Holy Spider is about a serial killer – and catching a serial killer, it is more a film about the women and the way they are treated in the situations they are in. What is the film about from your point of view?

For the director Ali Abbasi it was not about the serial killer, it was more about these women – not only the prostitutes or sex workers – but also the journalist, the serial killer’s wife, his mother, so all these different faces of women for me that is the subject of this movie.

What does the film Holy Spider say about Iranian society and its treatment of women – and what does the film get right in the depiction of Iranian women? 

It is not really an Iranian story. It happened in Iran and it is a real story in a religious city, but it exists everywhere and in France, we also have many examples of harassment or femicide. So I think it is universal. But at the same time, it really touched me, because I come from Iran. I also had those kinds of experiences there. It is not related to my own experience there, but how I grew up in Iran. How I felt myself as a woman in the street and experiences this kind of harassment – but it exists everywhere.

How did you become involved with Ali Abbasi’s film?

I started the work on the film as a casting director. We started four years ago and I wanted to focus on casting and he was not casting me for any role. That is why I was aware of every change in the script. I was somehow beside Ali every time he needed to talk about the script.

I knew he had this idea of making the film one day, because at the time when the real story happened, we were living there. We were really young and we were at the university and we remembered that fear that the whole society had. Not just women. I know that he had those questions about how you respect or humiliate women – prostitutes or street women, because at some point the government could not find the killer and that really became very strange for all of us in Iran, because it was not until after the tenth murder that they really started to look for this killer. So at some point they had the feeling that there is something maybe hidden somewhere – maybe this guy has support from the government. Maybe not, but that was the feeling we had and then when the guy was arrested, many people started to treat him as a hero. They started to appreciate his work – especially people from that city. I always try to understand everyone – the bad guys and good guys – and so I can understand that in this religious city – we are talking about a holy city and I really thought that people there needed some security with these women in the streets and they could not even think about the reason that they are in the street. For me, they do not do anything negative. I just respect them as human beings. But that was not the case of everyone and I do not want to generalize because I know many people who have respect for these women but at the same time, they never got the guy as a hero.

I just tell you this to tell you that this was really the reason that I wanted to make this movie and the moment he suggested me for Rahimi I really just got back to this reason and I just felt that I had this experience in my personal life.


After you won in Cannes, there was a lot criticism from Iran and some personal attacks. What did they say and were your and are you afraid?

I feel that it is kind of a paradox in my life because with all this kind of messages, it is not really new. I used to receive – not this kind of attack because now I know that there are some automatic kind of tweets that are not real persons or some people might be paid to send this kind of tweet, but they says “Wait for your day, we kill you” this kind of thing, it is harsh but not really more than they just told me all these years – many times, I just opened my Instagram and I got a message from a guy saying very bad things and very sexist things or sending me some really bad photos – all for me are the same and I think that sometimes I just get it really easy and I even don’t mind or I just forget it and sometimes, maybe it depends on where I am in my life actually. How tired I am of all these things. But sometimes I feel that that trauma comes up again, you know? Even if it was 15 years ago. So I worked on myself a lot and I don’t find myself as a victim. I have too many other important things to do than think about these things, but this last time – the first days that they started to attack me, I just had the same feeling like the first days I were in Paris. It happened to me that I received unknown calls and some calls from the Iranian embassy here and I could not even stay in my place and I had to sit down and I was trembling and not because I was scared, but because of some fears and some humiliation and somehow they came up again every time. And this was just for one or two days and then it passed. I think I just learned how to deal with this kind of messages and now I think … I am waiting for them to watch the movie because now they have started to say something and I don’t know how they want to deal with that they said. Because this movie is not about Shia, it is not about religion and it is not against anyone actually. They said something and I don’t know how they want to change it. They cannot just say – why did you make the movie in this way. Why did the guys do that? Why are the women without hijab? But what they said is not the reality, so I am just really waiting to see their faces after the movie comes out in France in two weeks and see what they want to say now because I don’t know what you think about the movie but it really is not against the religion.

Did you ever find out why your colleague leaked the private tape? Why did you feel you had to leave the country? 

Yes, I needed to. I stayed more than one year in Iran to defend myself. I never thought I had to leave Iran. I thought I wanted to work here. This is my country, this is my city, this is my work and nobody can make me run away but at the same time, the kind of progressive illness came to me after six months of interrogation every day and then we found the guy and nothing really serious happened to this guy and then I see that everyone is scared of me and no one wanted to talk to me and nobody wanted to work with me and then the government started to just block me and make me stop. I started to do photography and I had an exhibition in Iran and they came and they closed the gallery and for every single act, I just had the government do something after so … I can understand my colleagues – they did not want to work with me. At some point just before my trial, I decided to leave forever. I saw the sentences that they are asking for me. There were a few years of prison and 100 lashes and 10 years of banned from working. Nothing was more important for me than those lashes. I never can understand this – it is a really pre-historic kind of … why lashes? I could not really see myself under those lashes and being in this trial with many men and they want to just talk about my physics and how I appeared in that movie – in that video so just to avoid being more humiliated, I just decided to leave Iran. Nobody made me. I could stay, you can always stay and defend, but that is why – because I did not just want to let them destroy me more. 

Why was it important for you personally to win in Cannes, but also why it was important on a broader level? And also, there was a negative reaction in Iran. Instead of being proud of you for being the first Iranian woman to receive this big honor, they shame you again. Can you talk about that?

What happened with the authorities, it is just like I think they never saw the movie. They do not like us to make movies about Iran outside of Iran. And that is why I think this movie being in Cannes for me is special. This movie had something really special, a special meaning, because already the fact that the movie has been made is like a miracle for me and Ali and the producers because we had so many problems in the middle of the way.

Why do you think they are angry?

We really managed to make a diaspora movie out of Iran that is very close to reality. I promise you that you cannot find any errors there in terms of accents, in terms of reconstruction of that city, how people act and their body language and all the stuff in the shooting. Everything is very similar to that time in Mashad. I have nothing against diaspora movies but I am critical sometimes because I see Iranian movies with American or European directors and even Iranians, the new generation, and they really do not mind if there is an accent with Farsi in an actor or the body language is not really Iranian and it is kind of European body language and attitude and anything – even one chair or the houses or streets and we say always that it does not matter because the public who are going to watch this movie they live in Europe or in the US, so … and I think that this year we had Asghar Farhadi in the jury and I think that was a really good example, because I felt that we were so happy that he cannot really criticize us in that – maybe he found it  – I don’t know – violent or he did not like it – I have no idea… and the government knows that because they know that I grew up there because they know that I did everything and that we have some really good actors from inside of Iran and that makes them really angry as well. We had some crews from inside of Iran and it was a mix of people from the inside and the outside and I think it is the first time it happens in Iranian cinema. When I was in it and with my personal life and with my story in Iran and my relation with that government, they did not let me grow there and so it was like my coming back to Iranian cinema with this movie somehow.

What was it like being on the red carpet representing the film?

The red carpet was so, so, so, so special for me. There was a taste of liberation really and I just felt that we made a really good movie that was really close to the reality and I remember one day I told Ali that I would do everything for this movie because I want to see it happen – that it is possible to make a movie out of a country but really close to the reality of that country. So that day on the red carpet, I wanted just to cry and dance, it was so fun for me to be there in Cannes – the best place in the world for me. So when I said that this was a red carpet liberation, I really felt it.

What was it like for you to win the best actress award?

I think there was a message in it you know. This movie, as I told you, for me, it is about women’s different faces. So for me, it was for all these women – everywhere. Especially in Iran, because I know I have a very special relationship with my culture and those people there and they were just waiting to see if I got this award or not and I think there was this really important message from the Cannes jury to almost all women and men around the world – at some point, I was supposed to not exist anymore – in my life, in my work, in Iran, so I think they just felt my hard work. I am not sure if you saw my movie or not, but I received many good comments and I did not really expect it with all those amazing actresses in competition and all those good movies and I really did not expect it and so I saw it as a gift from Cannes to all of us – any single person who just tries to fight for his or her life and never gives up.

You are currently preparing for Iranian-Australian director Noora Niasari’s film Shayda. Here you play an Iranian woman, who finds refuge in an Australian women’s shelter looking for a life with freedom. Like Holy Spider it is a film dealing with women’s issues. Is this something you are deliberately looking for in your work?

No, this kind of project comes to me. Maybe this is my vibe that I give some directors, but at the same time I do question these things and the stories have to be told somehow. So yes, I do think I need these kinds of characters to express myself.

Knowing your country Iran, how difficult is it to be a female director telling female stories about your country?

I think it is difficult like everywhere else. It is not even easy in France. I think as a woman you need to be so strong and everything is more difficult for women. I feel in every job. Also for journalists like with this character, where I discovered what it is like for journalists. So I think it is difficult and it is maybe harder to be a woman in Iran or be a female director in Iran, because of the patriarchal society, because of the misogyny that exists more than maybe in many other places, but at the same time I think – which is really nice with Iranian – I think people help you to do the work. You find your friends and your community and somehow in the end you find the money or even without money people help you in Iran. If you make a connection with those you need to work with them, but this is not really the way we work in the US or in Europe. Here, everything is really so professional and that is why I think that doing cinema and making movies is kind of easier in Iran again even for women.

What makes it difficult then?

The problem that we face in our daily life or in work, it exists in Iran and it is not easy anyway to deal with, especially because of the censorship. As a woman, you have to be careful about many, many things that are not even related to your work: How is your attitude. How is your behavior. I remember many times, I was working on a series and that was one year of shooting and at some point, we had the authorities in our television system, the censor system, and if you do something bad, they ask you to go and answer their questions. And many times they just asked me calmly – or even the producer: ‘what did you do last night? I heard that you had a party. Where was it? Why? Be careful. Next time, you don’t go.’ As long as you are working on this series and this project, we don’t like to hear this. This kind of thing that it was my weekend and I was at my neighbor’s place and I don’t know who told them or why they asked me why I was there, so you deal with many other things that are not really related to your profession. So as a woman, it is even more difficult, because they never try to find your past girlfriends if you are a guy – except if they want to really destroy you. But they are always interested in my past life, in other women’s lives, so I think we deal with many other things related to this kind of society.  I think this is the same in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or maybe Southern Africa. These not really developed societies, which are dealing with religion as well.