Object in conversation with the cast behind Holy Spider, a Farsi movie with a global impact.

Words by:

JoB Desk

No items found.
Shop the Look

January 20, 2024

Like the protests, Holy Spider is about women. The grungy film noir focuses on misogyny in Iran through the real-life story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who confessed to killing 16 sex workers in the highly urban, holy north-eastern city of Mashhad in 2001. What follows are edited excerpts from interviews conducted with writer-director Abbasi and producer Sol Bondy on the challenges of making the movie—which included finding a country to make it in and trying to smuggle dildos to the sets—and what the process says about Iran and the larger region.


I believe you tried to make this movie in Iran, and you were invited to tea by the ministry. What happened there?

Ali Abbasi 

When you want to make movies in Iran, you go to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and submit your script. They have a film division that reads your script but it’s basically censorship. Usually, they come up with things they want you to cut out or change. It’s not that transparent. I don’t know who makes those decisions but they say it’s a committee. I don’t know who those people are. You get this committee to talk through it and give you the shooting permit.

I’ve done a few movies in Iran, like short films, and you need an extra permit for everything. Let’s say you want to go shoot in a park; you need to get a permit from the municipality. If you want to go shoot in the street, you need a permit from the police which is also like an interesting thing. It’s like in some countries everything is permitted until further notice or until otherwise. Except in Iran, it is the opposite. Everything is forbidden until you have a permit to do a specific thing. 

But I talked to these people, you know, we had attached a so-called producer, someone who has good connections in the system, and was supposed to help us get a shooting permit. I had conversations with these guys in the culture ministry. It’s like this Kafka situation. You have a meeting, and they are like, “Everything is so excellent, everyone is so proud of you, welcome back to your country, we want to invest in your movie.” I’m like, wow, this is too good to be true. And then they say, “The permit, consider it to be done.”



A clarion call from revolutionary Kurdish political writings, the chant was later heard from the women fighting against ISIS in northern Syria and, more recently, from the protests in Iran.  

Zar Amir Ebrahimi plays the role of Rahimi in Holy Spider. Her character is that of an investigative journalist pursuing the story of the infamous ‘Spider Killer’.
No items found.

Two weeks later, the guy who was supposed to stamp it is on vacation, but he’ll be back in a week. By the time that guy is back, the boss has changed, so you just need to redo it.

Instead of just giving a straight no, they make you run for it for a good while. At some point, when you don’t get a yes for a couple of years, then you understand it’s a no.


It also sounds very Orwellian.


It is [the] fucking bureaucrats. It’s really like Orwell meets Kafka. I guess if this was in the Soviet [Union], they would just talk about communism, but they don’t believe in any of this. They’re clumsy and banal people.


Iran is somewhat of a master in making movies in absentia. How did you choose where to shoot to maintain the authenticity of the movie?

Sol Bondy 

Ali had failed to get the permit to shoot the film in Iran. So, we thought that Jordan would be the next best option, but then COVID-19 hit us and Jordan closed closed its borders.  

Ali was determined and is somebody who does a lot of due diligence.  It would never be like, he sees the place and says, “Okay, this is great. This is it.” He’s always like, “Okay, this has potential but let’s look at another. And then let’s look at another.” The important part, though, is that all this time we were waiting for a shooting permit from the Turkish Ministry of Culture. I had already spent like 50,000 euros, and this permit wasn’t there. So, I started doing some digging. And I found out that the shooting permit request had gone from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from there to the Turkish Ambassador in Tehran, who said, “No, you can’t support this project.”

iran is a master in making movies in absentia.

The release of Holy Spider happened to be rather timely, given the women-led protest movement in Iran that sent ripples across the world. The movement was spurred by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious morality police in September 2022 and has become a key domestic challenge for the Islamic Republic.

I wasn’t supposed to know this. I booked a flight to the Turkish capital of Ankara and flew there with Ali and two of my line producers. We went there and they said, “Well, you know, you need to speak to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” The next day, officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “Oh, but for shooting permits you have to speak to the Ministry of Culture.” And we said, “Well, that’s where we just came from yesterday.”

It became clear that they were stalling our shoot, they were playing ping pong with us, you know, sending us back and forth between the ministries. And it was clear that the Iranians had enough power to censor our film. It was clear that I had just burned 50,000 to 60,000 euros in Turkey, in a country where I was never going to shoot the film.

Ali was furious. And I think he also started to get a bit anxious about blowing his cover in Iran. It took us a little bit of time to kind of really reconnect the pieces of the entire crew. By this time Jordan had opened, so luckily our Plan A was possible again. But Ali came with a long list of demands: he wanted a guarantee that he could bring Iranians into Jordan, he wanted a guarantee that you could bring cars into Jordan from Iran. To all this, we said, “Look, we can’t give you guarantees, but we can guarantee that we’ll do our best.”


Often, in diaspora movies there are inconsistencies with the narrative but Holy Spider goes far in trying to keep it as authentic as possible. How important was it for you to keep it real?


You shouldn’t count on your audience not knowing, and getting away with things. You should count on them being the sharpest, most intelligent people.  You want to have a discourse, a conversation with a very smart person and that’s what I’m also thinking in terms of authenticity. I didn’t make the movie for an Iranian or German audience. I thought if someone from the city of Mashhad saw it, they should also be able to buy it.

But I have two impulses here because this whole notion of reality is so slippery, especially in the times we live in. Everyone who has an Instagram account experiences several layers of reality… there is one reality in the physical world.

But is there another reality inside the phone? On the one hand, I like—and I think it’s important to try—to be true to our physical reality, to be true to authentic events and details. On the other hand, we’re also making a big giant lie, a construct. I don’t think any filmmaker in their right mind can talk about their movie being authentic because there is no such thing as authentic in the movies. You know, everything is fake. It’s just different ways of being fake.


With the metaverse, it’s even less real. 


Movies are the ultimate metaverse because of the whole notion of going into a parallel universe, getting an avatar and controlling it to experience another reality. Emotionally, that’s exactly what you do when you watch a movie. You know, I’m empathising with a black, lesbian, wheelchair-bound woman from somewhere in Georgia, and I can live that life for an hour and a half or ten hours.

If you want to talk about authenticity or reality, I think it’s more of a political thing for us. The context of this movie is so important because we’re up against a super-repressive government which has not allowed certain kinds of imagery (especially that associated with women, women’s bodies, whatever) for the past fifty years. At the same time, we’re also up against, you know, Hollywood.

I’ve been here in Los Angeles for many years. There’s a big Iranian minority here. For many years, they’ve wanted to do movies with Arabs as terrorists and what not. There are Iranians playing Arabs. You can imagine, they don’t even give a shit about the difference between an Iranian person and an Arab person, let alone two different Arabs from two different parts of the Arabic world. A lot of movies that they’ve done about Iran, like Argo, are not about lack of resources. They don’t give a shit about what the real thing is as long as some Hollywood guy looks good as the hero, lifting off the plane at the last second, and the Iranians look psychopathic and crazy. We’re against both of those parts, in a way.

Shop the Look (3)
No items found.


But great lengths were taken to ensure the movie remained rooted in reality, down to the cars used. How did you get the cars into the country?


I could make a documentary about that.

We sent an Iranian guy from Jordan all the way to Iran to buy two Paykans. This is a car that everybody drove there, which we felt would be the most important asset to make this film look like Iran. We bought two of them and he was wandering around the coast of Iran to find somebody to bribe, so that the cars could be shipped to the Arab Emirates and then to 

Saudi Arabia. It took a few weeks to get the Paykans on the container ready to be shipped. And then we got stuck again at the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The cars were very close to us and this was, like, two days before we started shooting.

It was a thriller to watch how these cars were travelling through the Middle East. Every border was like a real thriller. The Saudis said, “Okay, you have papers to bring them into our country, but you don’t have papers to take them out of our country. So these cars aren’t going anywhere, unless they’re going back.” We had to send them back overland, put them on a ship through the entire Gulf, which delayed us by three weeks… then on top of everything, the big mishap in the Suez occurred. Four weeks later, they got into the country, which was amazing.

The cars are nearly in every scene of the film. It really paid off. We dressed them as police cars, as taxis. It looks like they’re everywhere.


Journalistic freedom is so limited in Iran. Most media is state-controlled. How well reported was the story of Saeed Hanaei the serial killer, and how much material did you have easy access to?


There was very little material. That is also part of the reason why I’m not trying to sell the movie as true crime. In this case, all we had were some reports and information on a few of the people who were involved that we had to talk to. If they (the state) found out that I was doing research there, I could be in trouble since this was a sensitive issue.

Even though it was widely covered when it happened, the details were not really reported. That’s the thing, there are different kinds of censorship. There’s one where you just block information, but there’s also this sort of more refined censorship where you let the media know that these are the red lines and you can fabulate around them.

This was more the case in Saeed Hanaei’s story. For example, it was widely reported that he was very religious, like a fanatic. But there was nothing that went into the depths of how he was religious or why he was religious, and what it had to do with his killing these women. Another example was that there were contradictory reports about whether he raped these women or not. This is a critical point in the case. During his arrest, or even leading up to his arrest, I don’t think there was any conversation about that. But then suddenly, during his trial, the chief of police in Tehran made a statement saying that he did that.

Shop the Look (3)
No items found.

Mashhad is the second largest city in Iran. It is also a religious city with six million people, supposed to be the crown jewel of the Islamic Republic. It’s supposed to be the perfect city, the cleanest streets and all. So just the fact that there was prostitution—because that part they couldn’t leave out—was super sensitive. Even the fact that they had to report this, that this guy was killing these women meant that they had to acknowledge there was prostitution in the city which wasn’t supposed to be.

The city of Mashhad takes it to the extreme.

It’s like Vegas meets the Vatican. Mashhad is a major drug hub because it’s on the road from Afghanistan. And then you have prostitution, too. And this being an international city, all these vested interests and the pilgrims who come there to cleanse themselves also need to have some fun. For me, that’s where you see the real face of the Islamic Republic.


How easily could you depict something so taboo?


The weirdest thing that happened to me had to do with an explicit scene. We had to get a penis prosthetic into Jordan. We’d bought it in the Netherlands where the best prosthetics are in the trans community, where you can find the most real penises. I bought two of them so that Ali would have a choice. But you can’t just FedEx it to Jordan. At some point I realised that as a producer, I can’t ask any crew member to smuggle it into Jordan because it’s illegal. There are no dildos or anything there. Okay, I can’t ask anyone to do it. So I’m going to have to smuggle them myself.

I asked my local producer, “How do I do this?” And he said, “Yeah, you hide them in your bag. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. Just one thing; in the rare case that they do pull you out and they find them, just say it’s for your personal use.”

And you can imagine what happened, right? So, I’m at the airport, I get pulled out by the military police. They take me to a back room and find these two massive penises and there’s a lot of shouting in Arabic and I tell them that it’s personal, it’s for me. They put them on the table and put my passport next to it, and take a picture of it. I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is so bad.” But at some point, they told me to pack my bag and leave. That was embarrassing but at least I did it, I thought. But then I had to go through Customs and the same thing happened again, but this time it happened in public. Ultimately, they just sealed the penises, put them aside and told me that I could pick them up when I left the country again. So, I was busted. I failed in my mission.


Why do you think it was so sensitive?


Two things. First, if you look at Iranian cinema, which of course is beautiful, with many great filmmakers and great films, it is seeped in poetry and metaphors because of the censorship that they have to deal with. But Ali’s cinema is not metaphorical. His motto is like: You either show it or you don’t. It was clear that we were doing a film that seemed, looked and felt like an Iranian film but without this censorship layer. The other thing was that since it was a film about a serial killer, it was going to be violent. It was also going to be explicit in terms of, you know, sexual activities. In Iranian cinema, it seems like women go to bed with a hijab. You never see hair, you never see feet, you never see breasts, legs. Ali wanted to tackle all that.

JoB Desk

JoB Desk is the Editorial Team of Object Magazine.

No items found.
By using this website, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.

Join the Journey

No Thanks
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.