Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we’ll shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking with German indie producer Sol Bondy of One Two Films. Bondy, whose credits include Angry Indian Goddesses and The Tale, most recently produced Iranian crime thriller Holy Spider which is Denmark’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards and he tells us how challenging it was to get this impactful project off the ground.
A few days after Ali Abbasi’s second directorial effort Border premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, Danish producer Jacob Jarek approached Sol Bondy to co-produce the Iranian helmer’s next project Holy Spider. Jarek, who had produced Abbasi’s debut feature Shelley, had previously worked with Bondy on Icelandic titles Under the Tree and The County and with beguiling body horror romance Border generating much buzz along the Croisette, the producers were keen to strike while the iron was hot. (Border went on to win Un Certain Regard that year.)
“I didn’t know anything about it,” says Bondy of the project. “I just said ‘yes – for sure.’ My producer’s instinct just kicked in although, to be fair, every producer in Cannes probably would have said yes to that. It was a no-brainer.”
The film was a daring proposition but one that aligned nicely with Bondy’s One Two Films banner: A film noir based on the true story of the “Spider Killer” Saeed Hanaei, who saw himself as on a mission from God as he killed 16 women who were sex workers between 2000 and 2001 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad. The Persian-language drama would follow a female journalist (eventually played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) who investigates the serial killer to expose his crimes. It was a story that Copenhagen-based Abbasi, who lived in Iran during the killings, had long wanted to tell in a way that would show the dark underbelly of his home country, exposing its poverty and violence.
“We were all for it and it really fitted in to what we do and the stories we like to tell,” recalls Bondy. The initial plan, he says, was “fairly simple” and was a structure his Berlin-based company was familiar with: One Two would raise 10-15% of the €2.5-€3 million ($2.7-$3.2 million) budget through local post-production funding, public TV deals and via transnational fund Eurimages.
Financing was completed just over a year later when a change in Danish film funding laws effectively slashed in half the €1 million ($1.1 million) that lead producer Jarek was hoping to raise through his Profile Pictures banner. Other partners on the film, which included the film’s sales company Wild Bunch International, Why Not Productions and Sweden’s Nordisk Film Production, were forced to step up with Wild Bunch making a “significant” minimum guarantee to co-finance the title. It’s a mishmash of financing that is commonplace in European co-productions.
After scouting Turkey and Jordan as a location that would double for Iran (they eventually settled on Jordan), the global pandemic brought things to a standstill. Jarek had several other productions that were marred by Covid and at this point, he decided to step back and hand over the main producer duties to Bondy.
“We looked carefully at the options and decided that we would do a little switcheroo and keep all the financing intact and I would step in as the delegate producer, take the majority of the risk and be responsible for making the film from pre-production to post-production, rather than just being responsible for the latter,” says Bondy.
For Bondy, who established One Two Films in 2010 with producer Jamila Wenske (who left the company amicably three years ago) and investor Christoph Lange, this was by no means his first rodeo: The Berlin-based exec has produced or co-produced 16 projects since the company’s inception, with many featuring prominently on the international festival circuit such as Tom Shoval’s Youth, which played in Berlin’s Panorama section, European Film Award winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, Venice Film Festival title Under the Tree and Laura Dern starrer The Tale, which premiered at Sundance to rave reviews.
Like many skilled indie producers, Bondy had primed his ability to pivot to find solutions to any problem, with his work on Pan Nalin’s 2015 Angry Indian Godesses a perfect example of his ability to help craft nuanced stories for an international market. Bondy recalls being brought the prolific Indian director’s finished project back then, which sat at a lengthy two hours and 45 minutes.
“It was about female empowerment, and it was so beautiful but it was so clear that it needed a lot of work for an international audience to understand it,” says Bondy, who badgered its production team to allow him a chance to reshape it. When they relented, Bondy attached female editor Vessela Martschewski – the first female behind the camera on the title – and sat with her in the edit suite for three weeks where they cut the film down to one hour and 45 mins and sent it back to the producers in India.
Although, says Bondy, the new cut “didn’t really excite them too much,” that version of the film went on to play in the Toronto International Film Festival where it was the runner-up for the Grolsch’s People’s Choice Award, sandwiched right between winner Room from director Lenny Abrahamson and third place title Spotlight, both of which went on to Oscar glory.
“That was a huge success for me personally,” he says.
But moving into the driver’s seat with Holy Spider would prove to be his most challenging endeavor to date. With the pandemic still in full force at the end of 2020, they had to reconsider Turkey as a destination as Jordan began to enforce tighter Covid restrictions. Despite finding a service producer in Turkey, scouting locations and spending around €60,000 ($64,000) in prep (money that was never recovered), Turkish authorities ping-ponged them to different ministries and failed to commit to the permits the production needed.
Later, Bondy would discover that their permit had been forwarded to the Turkish ambassador in Tehran who forbid Turkey (which shares a land border with Iran) to support the film.
Tensions, understandably, were high and, says Bondy, “it took us a while to collect the pieces of this broken team – but we pushed and pushed, and we had super professional people working with us.”
While producing an arthouse title is of course not without its challenges, Holy Spider was now working against a pandemic, a declining independent sector and the Iranian authorities.
One positive that was gleaned through Bondy stepping into the delegate producer role meant that he was able to secure more funding when he took control of the budget, giving the project €3.8 million ($4 million) to work with before it was able to begin shooting in Jordan when it opened up again in May 2021. “That funding really saved us,” he says.
Further challenges included sourcing Paykan cars for the shoot, the popular Iranian car that Abbasi was hellbent on using for period accuracy. “I could make a whole documentary about importing cars from Iran,” quips Bondy, who says they had to bribe a fixer to purchase the cars in Iran and ship them through the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia and through to Jordan. When the Jordanian authorities turned them away upon arrival, the cars then had to be shipped by sea and then were further delayed when the Suez Canal was blocked by a shipping container for six days in March 2021.
“There were so many moments where it felt like the universe was shouting at us that this film doesn’t want to be made,” he says.
To boot, Bondy was also in charge of securing the safety of some of its actors, notably Mehdi Bajestani who plays the Spider Killer in the film, as Iran’s opposition to the film would make him and other Iranian actors in the film persona non grata. (He currently resides in Germany). Amir-Ebrahimi had already fled Iran to France in 2008 after she was in danger of being imprisoned when an alleged sex tape of her was leaked in Iran, despite the actor’s insistence that it is not her in the tape.
“I was planning a life for [the actors] after this film, which is not usually a part of my job description,” Bondy says. “I was getting visas, getting work permits, getting scholarships for their life after our film because we knew that they couldn’t go back to Iran afterwards.”
Throughout the process, Bondy says he and his team were always “very aware” of Iran’s opposition to the film, which began after the Turkey debacle. There was a “very strict” protocol of how they would get people out and what they would say when they went back in. Even still, a couple of crew members were brought into questioning when they returned to Iran.
When the 35-day shoot wrapped in June 2021, Bondy said it was a surreal moment for him and Abbasi. “I remember that night standing next to Ali and hugging him because we had fought so hard to get there and we actually did it.”
And the rest is history – well, nearly. Holy Spider was selected to play In Competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where Amir-Ebrahimi won the Best Actress Award and the title is Denmark’s official entry into the International Feature Oscar race.
Iran’s Ministry of Culture has widely condemned the movie, stating it “has insulted the beliefs of millions of Muslims” and likened it to The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, who has been the recipient of a number of assassination attempts. The author most recently survived a horrific stabbing last August when he was about to start a lecture in New York.
Bondy and others involved in Holy Spider have received several death threats – some of which are ongoing – but any fear from these are usurped by the outpouring of love the project has had in Iran (where it was leaked following the film’s French release).
Iran is now going through its biggest revolution since the year it was born following the killing of Mahsa Amini in September, who was arrested by morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair. Since then, more than 500 people have been killed in the country as women fight for their rights.
“It was incredible to see this film work in this kind of context,” says Bondy of the new life the film has taken since the revolution. “We knew the film would play well for the Iranian diaspora because they know the context, but now the world also knows the context. In Cannes, people were saying, ‘It’s brutal, it’s too much, why does it have to be like this?’ and we don’t get those questions anymore because people see on social media every day that it is way more horrific. I’m not saying that our film is peanuts – it’s still very tough to watch but it’s different than shooting a child in the streets.”
Bondy adds, “Ali put it quite nicely by saying that we definitely don’t want to surf the wave of the revolution with this film, but we want to serve it. So, if this film can be a contribution to what is happening there and if we can get more people to talk about what is happening there and it can stir the conversation, then that’s a good thing.”
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