An Iranian Exile Channels Her Trauma Into Film

Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who had to flee Iran after an intimate tape was leaked, has been transfixed by the protests erupting there as her film “Holy Spider” is released in the U.S.

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By Roger Cohen

The writer reported from Iran at the time of the 2009 protests, and from elsewhere in the region. He reported from Paris for this interview.

“I know that fear, I know that humiliation,” Zar Amir Ebrahimi, the winner of the best actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, said in a recent interview. “I know how men in Iran use their power to keep you quiet.”

Ebrahimi is an Iranian exile who, in 2008, decided she had to flee after being subjected to a smear campaign based on her love life. Now, that experience and her role in the film “Holy Spider,” which opens in theaters in the United States on Oct. 28, have intersected with disarming intensity, as women in Iran burn their head scarves to protest the oppression of the Islamic Republic.

The story of Rahimi, the fictional investigative journalist at the heart of “Holy Spider,” is one of female defiance in the face of male violence. Based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in the Iranian city of Mashhad, a religious center, the movie traces with unflinching, sometimes harrowing, intimacy Rahimi’s efforts to penetrate the world of men obfuscating Hanaei’s crimes.

“We need to finish this story,” Ebrahimi said, her pale eyes burning, during the 75-minute interview in Paris. “This Islamic Republic has to end. Women today know their rights. They know what life and freedom of expression are. It will take time and blood, but there is no other way.”

It took time and flexibility to make “Holy Spider,” which is directed by Ali Abbasi, an Iranian exile based in Copenhagen. Filming was impossible in Iran, given the government’s hostility to the project, and months of preparation in Turkey came to nothing when the Turkish authorities, apparently under pressure from Tehran, blocked the production. The young Iranian actress who was set to play Rahimi withdrew, abruptly overcome by fear of reprisal, just as filming was about to start in Jordan, according to Ebrahimi.

“I got so angry with her,” said Ebrahimi, who was then the casting director for the movie. “And I think that night when I got so crazy, I’m pretty sure that Ali saw something in me.”

So, in extremis, Ebrahimi, 41, who found fame in the early 2000s as a star of the Iranian TV soap opera “Narges,” took on the lead role. Given all of these obstacles, it is, Ebrahimi told me, “a miracle that we have it to screen.”

Abbasi, the film’s director, said he wanted to challenge the image of “the Islamic Republic and its leaders as some sort of theocratic, dry people who are very conservative.” At a deeper level, he suggested, “these people are obsessed with sexuality.” Iran is a country, he said, where the authorities “get some sort of pleasure out of humiliating women.”

For the director, who visited Mashhad as part of his preparations for the movie, “there is a Lynchian undercurrent of fetishized suppressed sexuality in every aspect of the Islamic Republic.”

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