For three days now, Iran's conservatives and state-aligned media have been engaged in a relentless attack on Ali Abbasi's 2022 film Holy Spider. The movie was scarcely on anyone's radar before last week, when it received a standing ovation at Cannes, followed by the female lead Zar Amir Ebrahimi scooping the Best Actress award on Sunday. This was all too much for the clerics, who because of the movie's content and themes have accused Abbasi of insulting Shia Muslims around the world. On Monday, an official statement by the Ministry of Culture even likened him to Salman Rushdie.
Insult to Shias or Threat to State Coffers?
Part of the reason for the Islamic Republic's ire - apart from the mere sight of Iranian émigrés making a success of themselves abroad - is that the events of the film take place in the city of Mashhad, a holy city for Shia Muslims and locus of tens of thousands of religious pilgrimages every year. Holy Spider dramatizes the real-life story of the Iranian serial killer and fanatic Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 women, all of them sex workers, in Mashhad in the early 2000s.
The opening credits for Holy Spider depict the city of Mashhad by night, lit up only by rows of street lamps that from the air resemble a spider's web with the shrine of Imam Reza at its center. The 8th Shia imam, died a suspicious death in 918 in the city of Tous near Mashhad (Shias believe he was poisoned by the Abbasid Calif Al-Mamun). Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for Shia Muslims the world over, and by some way the most important one in Iran.
Just as important, however, is the role played by the city of Mashhad in propping up the Iranian regime. The shrine is not only sacred but extremely lucrative, situated within a city that also plays host to several major Islamic educational institutions, bonyads and seminaries. Many of the regime's most senior, well-entrenched figures have based themselves there, together with their financial concerns. Anything that tarnishes Mashhad's image has not only a religious dimension but is taken as a stab at the power base of the Islamic Republic.
A Dead Cat Strategy
The Ministry of Culture went so far as to compare Abbasi's film to The Satanic Verses by the British author Salman Rushdie for the offense it claimed had been caused. In a remarkable official statement this week, it called the film "hateful, fake and disgusting" and "seek[ing] to follow the path that Salman Rushdie has taken in the Satanic Verses, and the burners of the Holy Qur'an".
In 1989 Salman Rushdie was the subject of an infamous fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini calling on Muslims to murder him for supposedly insulting Islam in his book. Rushdie went into hiding for almost 10 years while several of the book's translators and publishers were killed in reprisal attacks.
Khomeini's fatwa, issued in the final, singularly homicidal year of his life not long after he had also ordered the 1988 prison massacre, was probably aimed at boosting morale among regime supporters in the aftermath of the destructive Iran-Iraq war. In today's dejected political atmosphere, by stirring up faux outrage against a film not yet even in cinemas, today's officials may be trying to achieve the same thing.
There have been similar episodes in the past. One involved The Stoning of Soraya M., a powerful movie that won the Director’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, when pro-democracy protests in Iran were at their height. Tehran's news agencies accused the film of being “anti-Iranian”, and insulting Islam and the Qur’an, in a bid to unify the public on a different issue. Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, it failed miserably.
Nevertheless, there are signs the media onslaught against Holy Spider has the same goal in mind. Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, tried to stir up emotion this week by releasing a video called “Imam Reza: Iranians’ Kind Father” and by warning - read, telling - Iranian viewers that anything disparaging to his memory is "a red line".
How the "Outrage" Manifested
The reception of Holy Spider by Iran's pearl-clutching conservative media was marked by all the usual tropes: sexism, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories. Mehr News Agency took umbrage with the film's aesthetics, particularly the opening scene: "The main streets leading to the shrine are rendered in green light in the dark of the night, creating geometric shapes similar to a spider's web". It claimed this had caused a "wave of protests" on the part of "the Iranian Muslim people", though no evidence for these protests has come to light so far.
Other outlets took aim at Cannes itself, with the Ministry of Culture bafflingly describing the festival on Monday as a "tool of war" controlled by the French government. Fars News Agency dismissed the festival as having "started with Zelensky and ended with Zar [Zahra] Amir Ebrahimi”, the Iranian-born actress who won the Best Actress award. The IRGC-managed outlet incorrectly described Ebrahimi as "an actress wihout a resume" who had left Iran "for some reason" and whose victory at Cannes compared to "other Iranian actresses" was "inconceivable".
Awkwardly a number of of reformist figures had congratulated Ebrahimi on her win, including Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former President Mohammad Khatami’s chief of staff. They were named and shamed by Tasnim News Agency for having backed an "anti-Islamic" and "anti-Iranian" film, in turn leading to attacks on Twitter.
The negative coverage continued into Tuesday, growing increasingly unhinged. “Sol Bondy and Jacob Jarek, who along with Ali Abbasi produced the film, are both Jewish and Zionists,” declared the hardliner newspaper Kayhan, which is supervised by the Iranian Supreme Leader's Office. It came a day after Kayhan came out all guns blazing with an article entitled “A spider that is holy for Cannes is the invasion of the germs of corruption on Islamic-Iranian values.”
On Tuesday, Fars New Agency again attacked the film, and spefically Iranians who had spoken at Cannes about protests in Abadan after the collapse of Metropol complex. The state-owned IRNA news agency, too, called the film the latest attempt to portray a "dark image" of Iranian society but, at the same time, advised that not much attention be paid to it lest it strengthen the hand of the “theoreticians behind the affair”: “In the case of Holy Spider, we are not so much dealing with a film but with a strategic game, and it is the sagacity of the parties involved that will decide the victor."
A Spot of Competition
As of now, three films have been made around the story of Saeed Hanaei. The first was the 2003 documentary And Along Came a Spider by Maziar Bahari, the second the 2020 Killer Spider by Ebrahim Irajzad.
Killer Spider was filmed in Iran and released and screened two years later, after changes were made to mollify the country's censors. But it was something of a box office flop. Ebrahim Irajzad, the director of Killer Spider, complained this week that he had to "wait in line" to make his film while Holy Spider was shot abroad in Jordan, claiming - contrary to what Ali Abbasi has said - that Holy Spider could have been filmed on location in Mashhad if its director had been prepared to wait.
Meanwhile the producer of Killer Spider, Javad Norouzbeigi, is a former member of the IRGC. Also a graduate of the IRGC-affiliated Imam Hossein University, he has since worked with the again IRGC-affiliated Owj Arts and Media Organization, which makes films that align with the propaganda objectives of Iran's security agences.
Norouzbeigi previously produced the 2019 movie Blood by Masoud Kimiai. In 2020, Kimiai announced he wanted to pull his movie from the state-sanctioned Fajr International Film Festival in sympathy with the families of those killed in the downing of Flight 752. but Norouzbeigi kept it in.
Notably in recent days, security agencies have summoned a number of people they suspect of working in some capacity with the makers of Holy Spider. Some have accused Norouzbeigi himself of being behind the summons but he himself has been accused of helping the makers of Holy Spider, a charge he has vehemently denied.
Muddying the waters even further, Norouzbeigi is also the producer of Leila's Brothers, another contender at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival that received some positive reviews, if no awards, at this year's event. Rumors have circulated in the past 48 hours that the film is now banned in Iran after the head of Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Organization complained about “certain unseemly behaviors”: Navid Mohammadzadeh, the lead actor in the movie, had had the temerity to kiss his wife, the Afghan actress Fereshteh Hosseini, in front of the cameras in France.