Holy Spider: Ali Abbasi’s thriller that holds a mirror up to Iranian society

Picture of the film HOLY SPIDER by Ali ABBASI © DR

His last film, the highly original Gräns (Border), won him the Un Certain Regard prize in 2018. Ali Abbasi is taking another step forward in Cannes and presenting Holy Spider In Competition. With this feature film, he brings us to his homeland of Iran and into the investigation of a series of murdered women.

At night, a serial killer in Mashhad is on the prowl, luring victims into his web. The dead are women, prostitutes. While the police ignore the crimes, Rahim, a journalist from Teheran, wanders the dark neighbourhoods of the holy city in search of the truth.

Holy Spider is based on a true story, with the title of the film referring to the serial killer's nickname. In 2001, Saeed Hanaei killed sixteen prostitutes in the city of Mashhad, deeming them "impure". His trial created a lot of buzz in Iran, not only because of the horror of what happened, but also because some media and conservative elements made him out to be a hero.

At the time, Ali Abbasi had just left Iran to pursue film studies in Europe. But this affair haunted him, so much so that he worked on it for fifteen years.

“I wasn’t looking to reconstitute the case. My scope was much wider. Over time, I allowed myself to move away from the facts because I felt that this story wasn’t only about Saeed. It was about misogyny.”

With this film, Ali Abbasi is hoping to hold up a mirror to Iranian society, "even if the mirror is dirty or broken". The subject is a sensitive one in the director's homeland, to such an extent that he was not able to shoot there. Filming ultimately too place in Amman, Jordan.