Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
When Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi fled her country in 2006 due to a leaked tape, she thought her career was over. But on Saturday she became the first Iranian to win the best actress award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Ebrahimi rose to fame in her native Iran, but the crowning moment of her career at Cannes came while she was in exile, for a movie that was shot in Jordan.
Directed by Iran-born Ali Abbasi, “Holy Spider” is based on the true story of a serial killer in the holy city of Mashad, Iran. It follows a journalist, Rahimi, as she covers the hunt for a construction worker who was a suspect in the murder of 16 sex workers.
Winning the award “was just like a dream,” she told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Thursday.
The movie touches on the topic of patriarchy, which Rahimi hopes will send “a message of courage, a message of hope, for not only women, but men and women all around the world.”
The win has thrust her back into the limelight in Iran and has caused a backlash. The actress told CNN that she has received around 200 threats. “The problem is that they didn’t even watch this movie, and they are judging this movie, just from a trailer,” she said, attributing the reaction to the lack of freedom of expression in Iran.
Cannes at 75: Standout looks from the red carpet
Ebrahimi fled Iran for France in 2006 after a “private video” of hers leaked, fearing arrest and lashings from judicial authorities, she said. She had to start her career afresh “in a country where I knew no one.”
“I had to run away from my country, from my home. I left my friends and family behind,” she told CNN. But she refused to let the scandal mar her career. “From exactly the day after that scandal happened to me, I just talked about cinema, I just thought that I am alive, and I need to work. And you know, I will be alive because I have cinema, because I love my work, because I love life.”
Ebrahimi said her next film will be shot in Australia. She has no plans to return to her homeland.