The Nights of Mashhad at the cinema: his exile from Iran, his Cannes Prize… Meeting with…

Winner of the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, Zar Amir Ebrahimi is the heroine of the film Les Nuits de Mashhad, a moving dark thriller based on a terrible true story. Meet.

Shocking thriller from the 75th Cannes Film Festival, Nights of Mashhad (or Holy Spider) is out in theaters today. The new movieAli AbbasiSwedish director of Iranian origin who won the Un Certain Regard prize four years ago with Borderwas honored during this edition.

Its main actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi received the Best Actress Award for her vibrant performance. She plays Rahimi, a journalist torn between her obligations and her convictions who investigates Saeed Hanaei, a war veteran who feels invested with a divine mission by “cleansing the city of Mashhad from sin” by murdering prostitutes.

By telling the story of a known author of a series of feminicides, nicknamed The Spider, who shook up public opinion in the holy city of Mashhad, Ali Abbasi questions the misogyny of Iranian society in all its complexity through the history of the Nights of Mashhad, a misogyny suffered by the actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, whom we met in Cannes, before she won her prize with emotion for this role that she prepared carefully through his knowledge and research.

The Nights of Mashhad at the cinema his exile from
Metropolitan FilmExport

Zar Amir Ebrahimi, a fighter in a militant thriller

“In fact, I don’t gravitate very far from the world of journalists. I have worked with the BBC in particular and I have journalist friends in Iran, in France, all over the world. I know the difficulty and the challenges of their work I contacted my friends in Iran at the time, some of whom have since fled because of social and political issues.

Their situation was more difficult than I thought. Women journalists face insults, harassment, whether in Iran or in other countries, for that matter. I also watched videos of journalists who recount their experience with their colleagues, their editors but also on their subjects, who are sometimes political or famous personalities.

I thought that the world of journalists was a little more protected from these misogynistic issues, but I was shocked to see that this environment was no exception. And I needed to have an engine to shape my character who fights for truth and justice. I needed to understand why she was going to Mashhad, why she was putting herself in danger, why she was exposing herself to the killer.”

To bring even more depth to her character, Zar also drew on her more serious personal experience, since the actress was forced to leave Iran because of a sex tape affair which not only made her run a great danger – subject to social ostracism and threatened with lashes – but also ruined her career in Iran.

1657690367 936 The Nights of Mashhad at the cinema his exile from
Metropolitan FilmExport

The films she had shot at that time and which were about to be released were returned with other actresses to replace her. He was also forbidden to shoot in new films or appear on television. She had no choice but exile:

“I had a bit of a strange life in Iran. What made me leave Iran was still a serious story. It’s a pretty special story. I had this experience of being insulted , harassed. I added these personal moments of my life a little bit in my interpretation too, such as the confrontation with a member of the government or the reactions of colleagues. The latter were afraid of the scandal, they no longer want to work with you and don’t want to be involved in this kind of story that can create problems with the government.”

The Spider affair, which lasted a year and which is recounted in The Nights of Mashhad, Zar knows it well. She was still in Iran at the material time and she remembers the climate of fear that reigned there. Not only because of this investigation but also because of another similar case.

“There was another serial killer, a rapist and a killer of women, in Tehran. These two cases created an atmosphere of terror for women. The Spider case had created a psychosis, there were sixteen victims. We wondered how he could not have been arrested before, we wondered if he was not linked to the government. It was horrible. I remember that I was afraid to leave my house, to going out late. Every passing car could have hidden a killer.”

1657690367 504 The Nights of Mashhad at the cinema his exile from
Metropolitan FilmExport

Through his experience, Zar brings a lot of sensitivity and authenticity to his character. The actress was not originally supposed to play this role since she was working in the production with director Ali Abbasi. Eventually, he asked her to take over the role. And even if they couldn’t shoot in Iran, authenticity and attention to detail were the key words.

“I started working with him as a casting director and then a producer for four years. We had an intense pre-production period in Turkey. Finally, we didn’t have the opportunity to shoot in Turkey so we went in Jordan. The sets there are a bit like Iran. I’m happy because the film is successful in terms of sets and costumes, thanks to the high standards of the whole team.

Ali wanted to shoot in Iran. He tried but he could only do it if he accepted some censorship. Sometimes I tell myself that it’s better that he didn’t have permission to shoot there because he would have lost a lot of things, and it would have hurt his work. When he’s so honest about what he wants to say. It would be unthinkable to ask him to remove a scene from his film. I can’t even imagine Ali working under the conditions imposed by Iran. And there is no censorship.”

At the Cannes Film Festival, Les Nuits de Mashhad made an impression and caused a sensation with the jury chaired by Vincent Lindon, since it rewarded Zar Amir Ebrahimi with a well-deserved performance award for an unmissable film, whose projection tagged its actress: “The composer added a touch of miracle. When I saw the film in this large and beautiful hall of the Palais des Festivals, I was carried away as much by the film as by the music. From the credits, we enter the film and you are never disconnected from it. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Interview by Mégane Choquet in Cannes on May 23, 2022.

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