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STOCKHOLM 2022

Ali Abbasi • Director of Holy Spider

“It really feels like 1942 and fighting Nazi Germany”

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- The Iranian-born, Danish-based filmmaker seems to be slap bang in the middle of things, as his latest work gets increasingly topical

Ali Abbasi • Director of Holy Spider
(© Nadim Carlsen)

More or less since the first screening of Holy Spider [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ali Abbasi
film profile
]
in this year’s Cannes competition, Ali Abbasi’s critical and stark account of Iran’s “Spider Killer” who “cleansed the streets” of 16 prostitutes in 2001 has stirred up controversy. Six months later, Iran finds itself being a veritable powder keg, following the death of Mahsa Amini. We sat down with the director at the Stockholm International Film Festival opening of the film to discuss the vagaries of, and the best way to get involved in, the moment.

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Cineuropa: The release of Holy Spider coincides – perhaps quite overwhelmingly – with the current situation in Iran, something no one could have predicted. How have you handled it, in terms of your personal involvement?
Ali Abbasi:
I’m a bad spokesperson for anything or anyone, really, and I don’t see myself as a representative of the Iranian people. But this particular situation calls for extraordinary measures. It really feels like 1942 and fighting Nazi Germany. There’s no room to consider whether this or that statement is tasteful enough or if it’s getting too political. If I can take my shoe off and throw it at someone, I’ll do it; if I can dress up as a vampire mullah at a London screening, I’ll do it; if I can cause unrest at a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in Stockholm, I’ll do it. If I, on the other hand, stay away from anything political, then this, in itself, is a clear political choice – and not for me.

What reactions or consequences have you and your team experienced since the release?
Lots of them – from Iran, with love! Already at Cannes, we got the Salman Rushdie seal of disapproval – we are traitors, blasphemers, the full monty. My editor received a court order and has not returned to Iran. One of my assistants has been under interrogation… That said, they behave in a pretty klutzy way, and it’s not like we’re topping their list of priorities at the moment – there should be some 99 problems ahead of us, I’d say.

Can you enter Iran today?
I can’t. When we didn’t get permission to shoot in Iran, we went for Turkey, but after Iranian pressure, the Turks threw us out. We shot in Jordan, and then they got in touch again, asking to see the film, “in order to avoid possible consequences”. “By all means,” I said; “you’re welcome to come to Germany and see it.” “That’s complicated,” they said; “couldn’t we meet and watch it in Turkey instead?” “Yeah, right,” I replied; “with you conveniently kidnapping me in the process? Thanks, but no thanks.”

A straight and undiplomatic response, wasn’t it?
My temper would make me the worst diplomat ever, which partly stems from where I come from, a place of frustrating non-transparency. No one speaks their mind, and everyone beats around the bush. To me, life is too short for this, especially when dealing with obvious, sizeable problems. To me, you approach such a problem in as straight and as simple a way as you can. Rule number one: don’t lie. And none of that reading between the lines bull that permeates Iranian culture. My lines are what you read – all there, with nothing in between.

Will Holy Spider be your most political film, or is there more wanting to get out?
Perhaps. My dopey, fantasy side is resting right now, so no Border [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ali Abbasi
film profile
]
Part 2. In general, I take great interest in current events. To be right in the middle of it all, though, risks making you lose some distance from a subject. But I also like it in the middle of things. I wouldn’t mind making a film about 2023 in 2023, perhaps with a short expiry date, but in the moment, about a certain political topic. This suits my temper really well, I think.

Holy Spider is Denmark’s Oscar submission, just as Border was for Sweden in 2019. How do you administer your international relations these days?
I should really do something in Norway next… I do feel very in sync with the artistic sensibilities there. I parachuted down here from Iran, but I liked it and had a son with a Danish mother and recently got a Danish passport as well, mainly because an Iranian one will get you treated like shit from time to time. Today, I’ve lived the main part of my life first in Sweden, and then in Denmark. I feel right at home on either side of the Øresund Bridge. It’s a nice, decent place to be.

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