The first production co-directed by Iranian and Israeli filmmakers had to be shot in secret to prevent possible interference by Tehran, directors Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Guy Nattiv said on Sunday.
Tatami, a tense thriller centred on a world judo championship, got its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the weekend, receiving a standing ovation.
The film takes place over the course of the single day of competition as an Iranian judoka champion, played by Farsi-speaking US actress Arienne Mandi, is ordered to fake an injury to avoid a possible match-up with an Israeli competitor.
Amir Ebrahimi and Nattiv shot the movie in Georgia, a country Iranians can easily visit. They stayed in separate hotels, spoke English and did not let on that they were making such a politically charged film.
“I knew there are many Iranians there, so we were trying to keep it calm and secret,” said Amir Ebrahimi, who is an award-winning actress and also stars in the film, playing the judoka’s increasingly terrified trainer.
“We were undercover. We knew it was a dangerous thing,” said Nattiv, whose previous movie Golda premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Iran does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and has banned its athletes from competing against Israelis.
In an incident that inspired Tatami, the International Judo Federation in 2021 gave Iran a four-year ban for pressuring one of its fighters not to face an Israeli.
Amir Ebrahimi, who won the best actress award in Cannes in 2022 for Holy Spider, fled Iran in 2008 for fear of imprisonment and lashings after a private video of her was leaked.
She said she had to take time to think through the possible consequences before accepting Nattiv’s offer to make the film.
“What I have learnt about the Iranian government is that as long as you are afraid they can arrest you, they can kill you, they can make trouble around you. But as long as you are not afraid … it is going to be fine,” she said.
Originally published in Dawn, September 4th, 2023