Out of Iran, a chilling truth

Special to The Times

In the year before his arrest in July 2001, Saeed Hanaei, who lived with his wife and three children in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city, led a double life that was truly horrifying.

By day he worked as a building contractor. At home in the evenings, he would wait until his family had gone out to evening prayers, then he would go into the streets in search of a prostitute. He would bring her home and strangle her with her headscarf. Using the woman’s black chador as a body bag, he would wrap the body and leave it in an open sewer or by the side of the road. As a spider lures flies into a web -- Iranian newspapers called him the Spider Killer -- he killed at least 16 women.

The murders terrorized women in Iran, particularly prostitutes (there were a reported 5,000 in Mashhad). But also horrifying was what happened after his arrest. “There were demonstrations in favor of him,” recalled Tehran-based filmmaker Maziar Bahari, whose documentary, “And Along Came a Spider,” airs tonight on Cinemax. “Most of the people in Mashhad were repulsed by these killings, but a group of religious zealots were not,” continued Bahari, speaking over lunch in New York last year when his film was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“Those he killed were not human beings,” says Hanaei’s brother Jalil in the film. “Frankly, a whore doesn’t have an ounce of humanity.”


“And Along Came a Spider” is less than an hour long, but it is extremely powerful in both the interviews -- with Hanaei, his wife, his mother, his 14-year-old son, Ali, with a father of one of the victims and the daughters of another -- and in evoking the social atmosphere in which such a criminal could be turned into a folk hero. Ali, for instance, didn’t leave the house for two days after his father was arrested, Hanaei’s wife, Fatemeh, reports in the film, but when he did, he was happy. He’s quoted in the film saying, “Mum, everyone says I should be proud of what my father did.”

“At first ... I was a bit sad,” Ali says in the film. “But then I thought about it and realized he’s a great man. He’s like a great war hero. Or like that martyr who blew himself and the enemy up. He wanted to sacrifice his life for this country, so when I grow up, my life won’t be ruined with moral corruption.”

Bahari feels particularly sad for Ali. “He’s a kid. In a perfect society, he would go through psychotherapy. But he’s surrounded by narrow-minded people like his father, and they breed hatred. If you understand Persian, you understand that his vocabulary is like the propaganda on television.”

As was Hanaei’s language during the prison interview, Bahari said. On camera, his tone is matter-of-fact as he describes how he killed the women. He talks of how after he had killed 12 women, “the drought ended and it started to rain. I realized God looked favorably on me, that he had taken notice of my work.”

In conversation, Bahari hastens to point out that Hanaei did not kill because he was a fundamentalist. “There are many people who are more conservative than he is and cannot even kill an animal,” Bahari said, speaking by phone from Tehran earlier this month, shortly before he was to leave for Iraq to work on a documentary about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. “You have to be a killer first, but the rhetoric creates a context for these psychopathic killers.”

The film “is ultimately an indictment of a theocratic rule, which has created an environment conducive to committing atrocities in the name of religion,” said Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., who has produced several documentaries on Iranian cinema. Among younger filmmakers in Iran (Bahari is 37), “voices of dissent are on the rise,” said Akrami, who was born in Iran. “But you can’t directly criticize the religious establishment; you need to resort to oblique measures, in this case a serial killer who kills in the name of God.”

The film also reflects the “schism that has existed since Khatami’s election in 1997,” he added, referring to President Mohammad Khatami, who entered office as a reformist. The case of the Spider Killer “divided the country into people who considered him a folk hero and those who thought of him as a psychotic murderer. It’s a credit to the film that it pays equal attention to both camps.”

Mani Haghighi, a Tehran filmmaker whose fast-paced comedy-drama, “Abadan,” was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month, added: “What’s so clever about Maziar’s film is that it takes a very specific and volatile subject matter and shows you that there’s a fine line between the views of the murderer and the supposedly innocent men around him.”


Unlike recent Iranian cinema that’s reached the U.S., whose main characters are often children and whose setting is pastoral, this generation is looking at the “Iranian condition: the political challenges; the tension between the conservatives and the reformists; the emergence of Iranian feminism, where women are trying to define their rights within an Islamic context; the consequences of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s,” Haghighi said. Hanaei was a veteran of that war.

Bahari, the son of an engineer and teacher, left the country in 1986, during “the height of the Iran-Iraq War, the height of repression” to study at McGill University in Montreal. “I came back when Khatami was elected; there was a sense of euphoria.

“Now the situation is stagnant and people are disenchanted with the government and the reforms. Last February, the conservatives took over. There’s a lot of introspection going on, a lot of thinking, ‘What went wrong?’ ”

“And Along Came a Spider” has not been widely seen in Iran. But Bahari did show it to the daughters of one of the prostitutes Hanaei strangled. Both are interviewed in the film. Sara, 8, a beautiful wide-eyed girl, talks about looking for her mother in the place where she usually bought opium, in the days following her disappearance. Sahar, 10, recalls her family’s washing and burying her mother’s body. Sahar would like to be a journalist; Sara, a painter.


When he showed them the film, “they thanked me, they were moved by it, they understood why I made it. And they said, ‘We hope no one sees it. It would stigmatize them.’ ”


‘And Along Came a Spider’

Where: Cinemax


When: Premieres 7-8 tonight and 6-7 a.m. June 30

Producer, director, writer, editor, Maziar Bahari