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Ali Abbasi Talks Denmark’s BAFTA & Oscars 2023 Submission, ‘Holy Spider’

Filmmaker Ali Abbasi, whose previous venture Border was a Cannes Film Festival favourite and Sweden’s official entry to the Oscars. Stepping away from the fantasy and horror genres he has explored, Abbasi steps into the murky world of a flawed and corrupt society in Holy Spider.

Denmark’s official The Academy and BAFTA entrant, the picture is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who targeted sex workers and killed 16 women from 2000 to 2001 in Mashhad, Iran.

Despite being the country’s holy city, its residents are ill at ease. A serial killer (Mehdi Bajestani) is on the prowl, targeting sex workers and reporting their crimes – as well as the location of his victims’ bodies, wrapped in rugs – to a local newspaper.

When no-nonsense journalist Rahimi ( Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is transferred to the paper following a misogyny-related scandal at her last workplace, she immediately immerses herself in the city’s underbelly. Journeying more profound into the case, humanising the murdered women and attempting to navigate the city’s complex judicial system, Rahimi discovers that some don’t believe the Spider Killer’s actions to be crimes.

As visually striking as the movie is, the experience has been equally taxing. Ali talks exclusively with Filme Shilmy about his journey. He says: “The kind of movie this is and working with this kind of material actually affects everything from my mood and my life and my mental health, too. Also, the way the production goes, I was thinking about this when we’re shooting it, why are people wish for them to have more fun or be more relaxed?

It just feels counterintuitive when you’re, like, doing a hanging scene to go and have a break and eat a Kit Kat and come back. The material is so heavy, that it sort of feels almost strange to relax around it. And this has been a case, of course, for us, me and my closest collaborators, who have been dealing with this for many years. And to be honest, there were times I was like, okay, maybe I need a little bit of help.”

In preparation for intense scenes, he says: “I had to watch some real public execution footage for that scene, for the hanging scene. And it was really traumatising to the point that I felt like, okay, this is not really a healthy thing I should be doing.

But I don’t think it’s sustainable I wouldn’t be able to do, like, five more holy spiders back to me, I think I wouldn’t go crazy. I think it’s important that in a film culture, in a country that has been censoring things and people’s lives, sexuality and violence and everything for 40 years, I felt like I wanted to set the record straight at least once.”

Holy Spider premiered on various global platforms including Cannes Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. It streams on MUBI from January 20, 2022. Backed by Utopia Movies.

Watch our interview with Ali Abbasi here:

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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