‘Holy Spider’ Star Zar Amir Ebrahimi Was Banned From Iranian Cinema and Sentenced to Prison. Now She’s a Lead Actress Oscar Contender

Zar Amir Ebrahimi (also known as Zahra) should be basking in the glow of her best actress win at Cannes for “Holy Spider.” Instead, she’s in a reflective mood when she sits down with Variety for a Zoom interview, recounting the tumultuous 16 years that culminated with earning a prominent role in one of the best-reviewed movies of 2022.  

But before the red carpets and splashy premieres, this Iranian actress’s career was derailed and her personal life was upended following the release of a sex tape. As punishment, she faced possible stoning and lashing in her native country. Despite all that she endured, Ebrahimi has persevered and Hollywood is taking notice.

Ironically, Ebrahimi was never supposed to appear in “Holy Spider.”

She signed on to be the casting director for director Ali Abbasi as he put together the ensemble for “Holy Spider,” which tells the true story of Saeed Hanaei, nicknamed the “Spider Killer,” who targeted sex workers in 2000 and 2001, believing he was cleansing the city of moral corruption. Ebrahimi met with nearly 500 people for three years to fill out the cast. This included acclaimed theater actor Mehdi Bajestani, who plays the psychologically disturbed Saeed, and debut performer Arash Ashtiani as local news reporter Sharifi, who receives calls from the killer on the whereabouts of his newest victim. However, Abbasi was struggling to find the right person to play Rahimi, a female journalist who descends into the dark underbelly of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad to investigate the murders. At various points, Ebrahimi, who acted in soap operas in her country before being pressured to flee, expressed interest to Abbasi in playing the role. But he would dismiss her suggestion, telling her, “You are too soft. This journalist, I see, is not you.”

Eventually, they found a promising Iranian actress, but a few days before shooting in Jordan was set to begin she dropped out of the project, fearing the movie was going to be too controversial. Iran has a bustling film business (Asghar Farhadi has won two international feature Oscars for the country in recent years). However, it also has strict censorship, ones that prevented “Holy Spider” from filming in Iran due to the country’s rules, among them, that women cannot be depicted without headscarves.

“It looks at the dark side of the soul,” Abbasi says of “Holy Spider,” which was announced as the international feature submission for Denmark for this year’s Academy Awards.

The director was also interested in exploring the social conditions and reactions that allowed Saeed to justify his killing spree by using religion. The repressive society explored in “Holy Spider” was all too familiar to Ebrahimi, who fled Iran in 2006 after becoming the center of media attention for appearing in a sex tape. It was an intimate encounter between two consenting adults that was filmed privately in 2004. Then two years later, a friend called Ebrahimi to tell her a video was circulating online, and that the woman it showed appeared to be her.

Participating in an explicit sex tape is a serious crime under Iranian law. Ebrahimi denied her involvement at the time to the authorities and local media. “I had to deny; otherwise, they were going to put me in prison or even worse,” she says. 

Iranian authorities accused her of leaking the tape herself to get “more famous,” something she says she did not do. However, having now left Iran, for the first time, Ebrahimi admits that she is the woman in the video. And according to Ebrahimi, the authorities eventually found the man who leaked the tape, an actor in Iran she declines to name. That man was sentenced to six years in prison after the police discovered an extensive archive on his computer of images, videos and conversations with girls asking them for nude pictures. However, three months into his sentence, he was released, gaining even more notoriety than before. Iranian citizens even raised funds for him after his cancer diagnosis and sent him to Germany to receive special treatment. 

“I think the people even appreciated what he did,” Ebrahimi says, tearfully. “They let him work. They let him get out of prison. I faced lashes.”

On the day Ebrahimi’s court trial for participating in the sex tape was set to start, a second case against the actress was opened. Police and officials began interrogating former colleagues and friends of Ebrahimi, asking for photos showing her in any sexualized setting or even simply touching another man. As part of that investigation, the prosecutors planned to present five men who would testify that they had premarital relations with Ebrahimi. Before they appeared in court, Ebrahimi fled Iran and never returned. The government found her guilty in absentia and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 99 lashes with a leather strap, and banned from appearing in Iranian films and television. In response to the scandal, a bill by the Parliament of Iran was passed soon after, making the production of sexually explicit media, even for private consumption, an offense punishable by death.

Following its Cannes debut, Utopia bought U.S. distribution rights to “Holy Spider” and screened the suspense thriller at several festivals, including Telluride and Toronto. Ebrahimi says she’s savoring the experience after the long struggle she has endured and she’s hoping that her ordeal can inspire others.

“We have a cultural problem in Iran,” she says. “If I have a message for any girl or boy, around the world or in Iran – speak, speak, we need to speak.” 

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