Fourteen years before she was named best actress at Cannes, Zar Amir Ebrahimi sat alone in her flat in Tehran, contemplating the wreckage of her life and wondering if she had the strength to keep going. An intimate video of the actor and her boyfriend had been stolen by a man she once considered a friend, and was being sold on streets across the country. Iranian authorities were drawing up a criminal case. Sex outside marriage is illegal in Iran, and she faced lashes and years in jail if convicted. Ebrahimi was only 26, and even if she was spared prison, she knew she would never be allowed to act again inside the country.
She drew on that shattering experience for her award-winning performance in Ali Abbasi’s thriller Holy Spider, as the journalist Arezoo Rahimi, who hunts down a serial killer in the north-east Iranian city of Mashhad. The cops have been largely ignoring the murderous spree on their patch, because the attacker targets only sex workers and claims to be “cleansing” the area around Iran’s most sacred shrine. Meanwhile, Rahimi’s own career in Tehran has been derailed by misogyny, after her editor sexually harassed her, and office gossips turn the assault into an “affair”. She channels this fury into a reckless search for justice for the women of this dusty pilgrimage city.
“It is strange, sometimes I [almost] kill myself to interpret a character, but this film didn’t happen like that, I knew it. She existed in me,” says Ebrahimi, from her home in Paris. Perhaps not surprisingly for a woman who had her privacy so brutally stolen, she gives nothing away; visible behind her is only a blank white wall.
“I think I found the reason and the motives [for her character risking her life to find the killer] in myself, in my life,” she says. “I lost everything once, and then at some point when you lose everything once, it’s easy to lose and lose and rise up again, and that’s life, that’s the adventure of life.”
She also recognises Rahimi’s fierce will in the young women and men who have taken to Iran’s streets to demand their rights since last autumn, in the most widespread uprising against the Islamic Republic since it seized power in 1979. The movement was sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, detained by morality police who said she was not properly covered up.
Holy Spider, which is based on a real case, was written, shot and released before the movement began. Watched now though, it is impossible not to see the film as prophetic, a skewering of a rotten system and a celebration of defiance, particularly women’s defiance in the face of heavy costs.
“When you see you have nothing to lose, and you have no future and you have no hope … why don’t you fight for your satisfaction for five minutes in your life? I think this is the thing that happened to Iranian people everywhere,” she says. “But maybe women first of all. Because as women in Iran you are suffering every day.”
Ebrahimi understood with a terrifying intimacy from her own ordeal, how Iranian authorities police women’s lives and their bodies, plus the toll the system tries to extract from those who defy it. Some of the protesters have been killed in the streets, or hanged in prisons after perfunctory trials. Thousands have been beaten, detained, or simply disappeared. But Ebrahimi also knew the freedom that comes from deciding to claim her independence. Her performance has helped carry the film to the Oscars, where Holy Spider is up for best foreign language feature, submitted by Denmark, director Abbasi’s home country.
The role would seem to have been written for Ebrahimi: delicate but steely, battered but never broken by the daily battles of life as a woman in Iran, the reporter’s character informed by her own trauma. In fact her brilliant turn was a very last-minute accident. She spent three years working as a casting director on the film, looking for a younger, more physically strong actor to fit Abassi’s original vision. But that was a struggle. The film, shot entirely outside Iran, was always likely to be controversial inside the country for its caustic depiction of the authorities. The script also required Rahimi to appear with her hair uncovered in a couple of scenes, which would end the domestic career of any Iranian actor.
Dictators perhaps understand the power of art better than demagogues of the democratic world, who so often mock “elite” culture. Dictators are afraid of it, and persecute those who make it. Still, Iranian actors gambled on joining the cast.
“I have so much respect, especially for Mehdi Bajestani [who plays the serial killer Saeed Hanaei],” Ebrahimi says. “He really put his life at risk, he can’t go back now to Iran. He has no papers, no work … But he did this for something much more precious.”
However, the Iranian actor who had signed up to play Rahimi, opposite Bajestani, got cold feet, and pulled out a week before shooting started. With the production in jeopardy, Ebrahimi stepped up. She already knew Rahimi, because she had helped shape the character over years, pouring her own experience in to the crafting of everything from interrogation scenes to the reporter’s #MeToo backstory.
“The most important thing I brought to this character when I took the role, I think, was my [physical] weakness,” Ebrahimi says. “I just found a balance between the way she should be determined, and the way she is weak in this society, and she is fighting for something that maybe will never happen. With every step she takes there is a problem, with everyone in this society. It seems exaggerated but it is like this [in Iran].”
Ebrahimi brought her own most profound traumas to the role. During the filming of one improvised scene, where Rahimi goes undercover as a sex worker, she is asked her name. After a second’s pause, the pseudonym Ebrahimi alights on is Zahra, the name she used professionally, then left behind in Iran.
“Just in that moment I thought symbolically, I, as Zahra, was judged by people the same as these prostitutes,” she says. “Even my closest friends, the whole society, in exactly the same way, no one wanted to hear me, no one wanted to know the story. They just judged me.”
But part of the strength that animates Ebrahimi and the journalist she plays is their absolute refusal to accept society’s judgment of their lives and their values. That determination was evident even as her world fell apart in 2006. It was, she says now, “all about the night that I decided to stay alive”, the third night after she found out her private tape was circulating. She cried as she wondered how to break the news to her parents, and grappled with the reality that images of her naked body were being watched by tens of thousands of people.
“Then I just asked myself: honestly, Zar, is it a problem for you, if you don’t think about all this patriarchal mindset? And I thought, no,” she says. “This is my body, I love it, there is nothing more beautiful than having sex with a person you love, and I have nothing to be ashamed of. And then I decided to fight.”
She braced for what she now calls the “biggest role I ever had”, a public performance to save her life. It initially included denying, through a Guardian interview, that it was her in the video. “The article saved my life, saved my ass really. Because the government couldn’t touch me. That was the only serious international interview I gave, and it just somehow protected me.”
Ebrahimi survived repeated interrogations by security forces, then decided to flee into exile in France, to avoid jail and the lashing that would come if she was found “guilty”. Adapting was difficult. Her next film, White Paradise, is about an Afghan refugee crossing a mountain border into France, pursued by vigilantes, another role that spoke to her.
“I heard about this Afghan girl who is [struggling to] cross borders, and I thought this is just exactly what I experienced in France. I was invited by the French government to live in this country, but for 15 years my whole life was a fight just to cross this [internal] border.
“In France I didn’t have any time to think. I had one year without work, without money, without anything,” she says. “I had two, three friends, and that’s all.”
They counselled her that, as a refugee, she should settle for something more practical, but she was determined to find a way into the film industry of her new home.
“Somehow, through everything I stayed connected to cinema,” she says. “I learned how to work with a camera, how to edit. I did everything to not get any distance from this community.
“My friends said to me many times: quit cinema, do something else,” she says with a wry grin. As so often in a life lived with fierce independence, she refused anyone’s counsel but her own. “I think that’s why I am alive. I just won’t ever say goodbye to cinema.”
Holy Spider is in cinemas now.