A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BRIEF NOTE] A Rather Disturbing Film

Originally from Virginia Hefferman, in the New York Times:

“I strangled her,” an ordinary-looking man says evenly, his eyes fixed on an interviewer to the left of the camera. The confession is not extracted but volunteered. The man, Saeed Hanaei, is a serial killer, and pleased. This is going to be bleak.

“And Along Came a Spider,” a documentary that will be shown tomorrow night as part of Cinemax’s “Reel Life” series, tells the disjointed story of an Iranian man who killed 16 “street women,” 15 of whom had done time for prostitution, in the name of ridding his country of vice. As if the crime weren’t grim enough, various people, including Hanaei’s wife and son, hail the murderer as a hero. One man says, laughing happily: “He did the right thing. He should have continued.”

American viewers will not share this view. They will despise it, but that’s not much of a reaction for a film to promote. “And Along Came a Spider,” made from mortuary photographs and interviews set to music, is not in the least provocative; the crimes it documents are too extreme. Serial murders are uncontroversial; they are only agony. People who support them or laugh them off are unintelligible.

The voice of the filmmaker, Maziar Bahari, can be heard a number of times. He sounds frustrated. And why not? In spite of his access to the killer and the families of his victims, there’s not much movie here. If the murderer had not confessed so frankly, Mr. Bahari might have done some sleuthing. If Hanaei’s wife and son weren’t so supportive and proud, he might have probed their ambivalence. As it is, the horror is all on the surface. A concluding shot of Hanaei, dangling at the end of a hangman’s rope, does nothing to complicate or relieve that horror.

An intimation of a broader story does come at least once in the film, when it becomes clear that those who believe Hanaei was right nonetheless advocate the death penalty for him.

“We don’t pay attention to East or West,” one man says, arguing that “holy Islamic law” mandates “an eye for an eye.” This paradoxical view of guilt and innocence, and its relation to life and death, deserves more attention. Similarly, a Koranic clause wherein people deemed a “waste of blood” can be killed with impunity could have been explained further. We never learn about the way this bylaw works in practice, only that Hanaei is not qualified to cite it in his defense. (A judge says Hanaei didn’t fully understand the waste-of-blood idea before he committed his murders.)

Many of the on-screen speeches sound a note of murderous misogyny, the kind associated with various cultures in the Middle East. But “And Along Came a Spider” (the Hollywood title does the subject a disservice) does not illuminate Islamic cruelty to women. It just asserts it.

One of the most disturbing people in the film is Hanaei’s mother. Smiling over her son’s youthful mischief, she also reflects on how restricted she feels in Iran. Could this be a feminist statement? In fact it’s brutal doublespeak:

“God knows when I see those girls using public phones–which are for people’s convenience–and making dates with young men, I get so angry that if I weren’t scared of this society, I’d grab those girls by their hair and cut them to pieces.”

A society that denies a woman her desire to cut to pieces other women who use the public phone? That is scary, terrifying.

Another review, from The Guardian, is available here:

The case provoked a debate between reformers who condemned the authorities for failing to catch him earlier and some conservatives who shared the killer’s disgust with a rise in prostitution.

“Who is to be judged?” wrote the conservative newspaper Jomhuri Islami. “Those who look to eradicate the sickness or those who stand at the root of the corruption?” [. . .]

Despite Hanaei’s confession in prison that he had “improper relations” with his victims, some ideologues still sympathise with the spider killer. This month a hardline paramilitary group, Ansar-e Hizbollah, warned in its weekly publication that declining morality among women could lead to more such killings: “It is likely that what happened in Mashhad and Kerman could be repeated in Tehran.”

There is something seriously, seriously wrong with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 26, 2004 at 3:37 am

Posted in Assorted

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