NB. There’s no way of talking about this without spoilers, although the film largely based on a true story, so it’s up to you.
Holy Spider is a tough watch. It’s a fictionalised account of the serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 women in Iran, all or most of whom were sex workers, in 2000-2001. He was ultimately caught and executed, but along the way, Hanaei became a folk hero of the religious right because of his claim that his killing spree was a divinely inspired mission to cleanse the streets of ‘corrupt women’.
In light of today’s protests by women in Iran against the strictures of the ‘Morality Police’ the story feels important and prophetic, suggesting that Hanaei’s twisted mentality is now enshrined in a state sanctioned murderously misogynistic DNA.
I should start by saying that I think Holy Spider is a very good film in many ways. It’s brilliantly made, utterly gripping, with superb acting all round. The director, Ali Abbasi, is himself Iranian (although he lives in Denmark now) and some might remember him from the very bizarre Border which came out a few years ago about a Troll working as a customs officer.
On the one hand Holy Spider follows an incredibly determined brave woman journalist, Arezoo Rahimi, who finally entraps Hanaei by posing as a sex worker and pursuing justice on behalf of his victims, on the other it endeavours to explore Hanaei’s psyche (embittered war veteran, religious zealot etc), following him as he commits murder after murder, which he gets away with because, as with Peter Sutcliffe, there is little sympathy for his sex worker victims who are seen as largely responsible for their own fate.
Here lies the problem. To tell this part of the story, Abbasi decides we need to watch not one, not two, but three very brutal murders, dwelling in graphic detail on highly disturbing images of their strangulation. While there is some attempt, certainly with two of the victims, to give them a hinterland and depth beyond being simply cinematic murder-fodder, there is clearly justification for the accusation that Abbasi is being unnecessarily voyeuristic. Wendy Ide in The Observer was particularly scathing, suggesting that this aspect of the film perpetuated precisely what it was attempting to critique and it was therefore only worthy of two stars. She has a point.
I found myself very conflicted. In recent years, especially in the writing community, the consensus has been that we should aim to give far less narrative air time to perpetrators, and where possible make our stories about those who suffer at their hands. In 2021, in The Investigation, a brilliant Danish dramatisation around the murder of journalist Kim Wall in a wealthy entrepreneur’s private submarine, the perpetrator was neither named or featured at all. It was an incredibly affecting and powerful drama.
The thing is, while I was blown away by the power of that Danish series, I can’t in all honesty bring myself to believe that this is the only way of respectfully telling these stories, after all sometimes it is our duty as writers to dig down into why people transgress in the way they do. In the case of Iran, where Abbasi is making a broader political point about ingrained cultural, political and religious misogyny, not to explore who Hanaei believes himself to be would be to render the whole enterprise utterly pointless.
Indeed, although Hanaei was caught after a potential victim managed to escape, the journalist’s brave, empowering entrapment story, gripping though it is, appears to be little more than worthy wish fulfilment. The truth of the film – and truth is what we’re about as writers and directors – lies in the parts of the film about which well-meaning, politically astute critics are so righteously critical.
So, could the film have been made without forcing us to watch those murders? Would one or two murders have been enough? The answer to that is yes, but I seriously doubt it would have been anywhere as powerful a statement as it is. It could reasonably – if uncomfortably – be argued that to do so would be less respectful of those victims, not more so, because in narrative terms the crimes would be sanitised for the audience, and Abbasi is addressing an audience who, he believes, simply do not take the issue of violence against women seriously. If there are people – sometimes controlling entire nations – who see violence against women as an abstract justified by a higher force, as divine retribution, then showing it as cold, brute, murderous evil done, repeatedly, by men (not gods), is thematically and politically justified. After all, that is the truth of the world.
When we meet the parents of one of the murdered women, torn apart by grief and shame, it is a hair-raising moment, precisely because we have lived the young woman’s terrible death with her. When Hanaei’s son coolly, proudly re-enacts his father’s crimes with his toddler sister, as if playing a children’s game, we flinch precisely because we have borne witness to the full horror of the deed as it happened.
And in a brilliant and shocking final act, the execution of Hanaei is seen to be equally brutal, the audience forced to watch in grim detail just as they have the murders of his female victims. We could equally ask do we really need to see that in all its horror? The answer for me is yes, because it exposes the suffocating pointlessness of any culture driven by retribution, divine or human.
It has become easy to eschew voyeurism, and often there is good reason to be wearily impatient with tropes where women feature primarily as corpses, but equally there are times when those stories need to be told, and when perhaps those images need to be seen.
Whether the balance is right here, and whether a woman director would have made this differently, or as effectively, or better, I genuinely have no idea. All I can say is that Holy Spider is an extremely powerful and disturbing film which I shall be thinking about for days if not weeks if not years, where a more discreet cinematic style might have been a good deal more forgettable.
It made me rightfully angry at the crime, not at the film maker, and I’ve never been one for blaming the messenger.
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