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An exiled actress stars in a piercing portrait of Iran

NEW YORK (AP) — Ninety-nine lashes and a prison sentence awaited Zar Amir Ebrahimi in 2008 when she decided to flee Iran. Ebrahimi’s only crime was sex.
FILE - Zar Amir Ebrahimi, winner of best actress for her role in "Holy Spider" holds her award following a ceremony at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, on May 28, 2022. Ebrahimi stars in Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” playing a journalist investigating a serial killer in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad who is murdering women and sex workers. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Ninety-nine lashes and a prison sentence awaited Zar Amir Ebrahimi in 2008 when she decided to flee Iran.

Ebrahimi’s only crime was sex. A videotape made privately with her then-partner had two years earlier been leaked by someone else, and spread widely. Ebrahimi, then a well-known TV star in Iran, was charged with having sexual relations outside wedlock. She was ostracized and harassed, her friends and coworkers interrogated.

“I lost my career. I lost my whole life. And at some point, I became traumatized. I was scared to go to the street alone,” Ebrahimi said in a recent interview. “The authorities did everything to me to just make me more helpless and make me more scared. I think at some point, they wanted me to get to suicide, just somehow remove myself from that society.”

Ebrahimi, now 41, decided she wouldn’t take any more punishment. She fled to Paris, slowly remaking her life and adjusting to a foreign culture. She started with babysitting and restaurant jobs. She hasn’t returned to Iran since.

“I can never see myself getting these lashes,” Ebrahimi says.

Now, 16 years later, Ebrahimi has dramatically resurfaced on the global stage. She stars in Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” playing a journalist investigating a serial killer who is murdering women and sex workers in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. At the Cannes Film Festival, Ebrahimi won best actress for her performance.

The Iranian regime had tried to silence her, Ebrahimi said. “And yet here I am.”

“Holy Spider,” which opens in theaters Friday, is based on the 2001 case of Saeed Hanaei, who after confessing to the crimes was celebrated as a folk hero by extremists and right-wing Iranian media. A dark and complex portrait of an Iranian society of oppressive misogyny and simmering injustice, “Holy Spider” has taken on new meaning following the protests that have surged through Iran in recent weeks.

Nationwide antigovernment protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Demonstrations have been met by a crackdown by security forces that have killed more than 200 people, including children, according to rights groups. In cities around the world, many more have held protests in solidarity.

“Being here at this distance, watching all the videos come out, it’s so hard. I need to participate somehow,” Ebrahimi said by Zoom from Paris. “I think with this movie, I have a chance.”

Abbasi, who made the 2018 acclaimed thriller “Border” and has directed episodes of the HBO series “The Last of Us,” is also an Iranian exile. He lives in Copenhagen. (“Holy Spider” is Denmark’s Oscar submission this year.) Politics, he said, never especially interested him as a filmmaker. But he was troubled by the response to Hanaei’s murders — dubbed the “spider killings” by local media — and saw in the religious center of Mashhad the shadowy stuff of film noir. There, he says, is the duality of Iranian society, with men make pilgrimages by day and hunt for drugs and prostitutes by night.

Abbasi initially tried to make the film in Iran but couldn’t secure permission. He shot it instead in Jordan. By then, Ebrahimi had regained a foothold in the European film industry, working in various capacities. She was initially Abbasi's casting director. Only once the original Iranian actress, fearing the regime's response, bowed out of the film did Abbasi ask Ebrahimi to play the part. He knew the role would resonate differently with Ebrahimi.

“If there is one person I can say with good conscience is an ambassador of Iranian women, an ambassador of the plight and the trouble, and who rose from the ashes, I think that person is Zar,” says Abbasi. “There are bigger forces in play than that she’s just an excellent actor.”

“Holy Spider,” which Abbasi has called “the first Persian noir,” doesn’t shy away from the violence of its story. Critics have compared it to David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” an inspiration to the director. One victim is strangled by her hijab. Part of Iran’s government-mandated dress code for women, the hijab has become a potent political symbol following the death of Amini, who was arrested for violating hijab rules.

“One of the regime-friendly journalists asked me in Cannes: ‘Why is it that I insist on showing everything so pitch black?’” says Abbasi. “If you look at what’s going on in the street right now in Iran, I don’t think this is a pitch-black rendition of Iran. Maybe it’s almost too optimistic because, in our movie, nobody is smashing anybody’s skull with a baton.”

Ebrahimi’s character in the film, Rahimi, is fictional. But as a woman seeking justice for women in a male-controlled, sexually repressed society, she’s a courageous protagonist who has come to reflect both the current uprising and Ebrahimi’s own journey.

“It was really fictional," says Ebrahimi, who became a French citizen in 2017. "But now, the truth is, I just watched these women and these men fighting for their lives and their freedom in the street, it’s just like there are thousands of Rahimis right now. Rahimi has become a reality.”

For Ebrahimi, “Holy Spider” represents the culmination of a long journey.

“I channeled my own experience of life in this character,” says Ebrahimi. “I never saw myself as a victim but at some point, I think we are all victims of this system, of this mindset.”

“People don’t want this system anymore," she adds. “As a person who grew up in this system, I think we are almost 18 million actors because we just learn how to lie and live a double life. At some point, I think today, we are just tired of this lie and this game.”

“Holy Spider” arriving in theaters during such political upheaval has catapulted both Ebrahimi and Abbasi into roles they never expected and yet at the same time have prepared for their entire lives. At the London Film Festival earlier this month, Ebrahimi said they each felt absurd attending such an event while protesters clashed with authorities. On the red carpet, Abbasi wore a cleric's robe and blood-stained vampire teeth while holding up a sign for Amini.

“I was sitting there crying: ‘I can’t anymore talk about this. I don’t know what to say, if I’m Iranian or not. I’m not a speaker of these people,’" says Ebrahimi. "But I think we need to stay all together. This movie gives me this opportunity and I have to use it.”

What's happening in Iran is a revolution, she says, and “Holy Spider" bears a message: "You can’t anymore control us.”

“There’s no way back,” says Ebrahimi.


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Jake Coyle, The Associated Press