Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi insists that his Cannes competition film “Holy Spider” is not intended to be a controversial truth telling. Rather, he is telling the truth through a fictional interpretation of real events. The film chronicles a killing spree in the streets of the religious city of Mashhad, where 16 prostitutes were found dead between 2000 and 2001.
“I am not a big fan of serial killers or serial killer movies,” Abbasi said May 23 at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was living in Iran at the time. I was following the news like everyone else. [These events] became interesting for me when a certain segment of Iranian society started to describe [the killer] as a selfless hero [doing things] for society. That’s when it became more than a sick guy killing women.”
Abbasi stressed his film is “not the real story,” adding, “This is an interpretation. It would be morally wrong to tell that story. I’m not even interested by it. On a good day this is a work of art. On another, it is a work of entertainment.”
The filmmaker was also critical of the conditions in which Iranian cinema is made and curated in his home country, suggesting that some of the best films are available only on YouTube outside the country, while the negatives are rotting.
“In the past 50 years we have been presenting a parallel reality in Iranian cinema,” said Abbasi. “Women never take their clothes off. They sleep with five meters of cloth around their heads. They never have sex. They never fart…that is not an inspiration.”
The film was not given permission to shoot in Iran and went to Jordan instead for production. The director said, “I went to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, had a cup of tea with them, and showed them the script, minus a few scenes. But I was ready to make a compromise [because that would allow me get closer to the reality,].” A year later the authorities were still stalling.
“To me there is nothing controversial about my movie,” he added. “There is ample evidence that Iranians have sex. There is evidence of prostitution in Iran, just like all big cities around the world.”
Abbasi says that his message is not specifically about the killings or even about violence against women. Rather it is about the state of Iranian society, how so many people remain poor and desperate in a country blessed with riches. “[The women] were all living in poverty. They were married when they were 14. Had two kids when they were 23,” he said.
“This is not an anti Iranian government movie. It is not anti-anybody. I don’t think Roman Polanski was making an anti-LA County movie [in ‘Chinatown.’] But the fact is that [the killer] was a very religious man. And that the killings were taking place in a holy city,” said Abbasi.