An exiled actress stars in a poignant portrait of Iran

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NEW YORK (AP) — 99 lashes and a prison sentence awaited Tsar Amir Ebrahimi in 2008 when she decided to flee Iran.

Ebrahimi’s only crime was sex. A videotape she recorded privately with her then-partner had been leaked by someone else two years earlier and shared widely. Ebrahimi, then a well-known television star in Iran, was charged with extramarital sexual relations. She was ostracized and harassed, her friends and colleagues interrogated.

“I lost my career. I’ve lost my whole life And at some point I was traumatized. I was afraid to go out on the street alone,” Ebrahimi said in a recent interview. “The authorities have done everything to make me even more helpless and scared. I think at some point they wanted me to commit suicide, just sort of remove myself from this society.”

Ebrahimi, now 41, decided she would not take any more punishment. She fled to Paris, slowly reorganizing her life and adjusting to a foreign culture. She started out with babysitting and restaurant jobs. Since then she has not returned to Iran.

“I can never imagine getting those lashes,” says Ebrahimi.

Now, 16 years later, Ebrahimi has dramatically re-emerged on the global stage. She stars in Ali Abbasis’ Holy Spider, in which she plays a journalist investigating a serial killer murdering women and sex workers in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. At the Cannes Film Festival, Ebrahimi won Best Actress for her performance.

The Iranian regime tried to silence them, Ebrahimi said. “And yet here I am.”

Holy Spider, which hits theaters on Friday, is based on the 2001 case of Saeed Hanaei who, after confessing to the crimes, was hailed as a folk hero by extremists and right-wing Iranian media. A dark and complex portrait of an Iranian society steeped in oppressive misogyny and simmering injustice, Holy Spider has taken on new meaning in the wake of the protests that have raged through Iran in recent weeks.

Nationwide anti-government protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s Morality Police. Demonstrations were crushed by security forces who killed more than 200 people, including children, according to human rights groups. Many more solidarity protests have been held in cities around the world.

“It’s so hard to be here at this distance watching all the videos come out. I have to attend somehow,” said Ebrahimi of Zoom from Paris. “I think I have a chance with this film.”

Abbasi, who directed the 2018 acclaimed thriller Border and directed episodes of the HBO series The Last of Us, is also an Iranian exile. He lives in Copenhagen. (“Holy Spider” is Denmark’s Oscar entry this year.) Politics, he said, has never particularly interested him as a filmmaker. But he was troubled by the reaction to Hanaei’s killings – dubbed “spider killings” by local media – and saw the shadowy film noir stuff at Mashhad’s religious hub. There, he says, is the duality of Iranian society, in which men make pilgrimages during the day and hunt down drugs and prostitutes at night.

Abbasi initially tried to shoot the film in Iran but was unable to secure permission. He shot it in Jordan instead. By then, Ebrahimi had regained a foothold in the European film industry, working in a variety of roles. She was initially the casting director of Abbasi. It was only when the original Iranian actress dropped out of the film, fearing a reaction from the regime, that Abbasi asked Ebrahimi to play the role. He knew Ebrahimi’s role would be different.

“If there is one person who I can honestly say is an ambassador for Iranian women, an ambassador of need and trouble who has risen from the ashes, I think that’s Zar,” says Abbasi. “There are greater forces at play than just being a superb actress.”

“Holy Spider”, whom Abbasi called “the first Persian noir”, does not shy away from the violence of its story. Critics have compared it to David Fincher’s Zodiac, an inspiration for the director. A victim is strangled by her headscarf. The hijab is part of the dress code for women mandated by the Iranian government and became a powerful political symbol following the death of Amini, who was arrested for violating hijab rules.

“One of the pro-regime journalists asked me in Cannes: ‘Why do I insist on showing everything so black?'” says Abbasi. “If you look at what’s going on in the streets of Iran right now, I don’t think this is a pitch-black portrayal of Iran. Maybe it’s almost too optimistic, because in our film, there’s no one banging someone’s skull in with a truncheon.”

Ebrahimi’s character in the film, Rahimi, is fictional. But as a woman seeking justice for women in a male-controlled, sexually oppressed society, she is a brave protagonist who has come to reflect on both the current uprising and Ebrahimi’s own path.

“It was really fictional,” says Ebrahimi, who became a French citizen in 2017. “But now, the truth is, I’ve only seen these women and these men fighting for their lives and freedom in the streets, it’s just like there are thousands of Rahimis now. Rahimi has become a reality.”

For Ebrahimi, Holy Spider is the culmination of a long journey.

“I poured my own life experience into this character,” says Ebrahimi. “I’ve never seen myself as a victim, but at some point I think we’re all victims of this system, this way of thinking.”

“People don’t want this system anymore,” she adds. “As a person who grew up in that system, I think we’re almost 18 million actors because we’re just learning to lie and live double lives. At some point I think today we’re just sick of this lie and this game.”

Released during such a political upheaval, Holy Spider has catapulted both Ebrahimi and Abbasi into roles they never expected while preparing for their entire lives. At the London Film Festival earlier this month, Ebrahimi said they both felt absurd attending such an event amid protesters clashed with authorities. On the red carpet, Abbasi wore a priest’s robes and bloodstained vampire fangs while holding up a sign for Amini.

“I sat there and cried, ‘I can’t talk about this anymore. I don’t know what to say if I’m Iranian or not. I’m not a spokesman for these people,’” says Ebrahimi. “But I think we all have to stay together. This film gives me that opportunity and I have to take it.”

What is happening in Iran is a revolution, she says, and “Holy Spider” carries a message: “You can no longer control us.”

“There’s no going back,” says Ebrahimi.

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Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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