A Secret Collaboration Between Iranian and Israeli Filmmakers Shines at Venice Film Festival

The Venice Film Festival witnessed a historic moment this weekend, as the world premiere of ‘Tatami’, a thriller co-directed by Iranian and Israeli filmmakers, received a standing ovation. The movie, which explores the political and personal dilemmas of an Iranian judoka champion facing an Israeli opponent, was shot in secret to avoid possible interference by Tehran.

The Story Behind ‘Tatami’

‘Tatami’ is the first production co-directed by Iranian and Israeli filmmakers, Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Guy Nattiv. The movie follows the journey of an Iranian judoka champion, played by Farsi-speaking U.S. actress Arienne Mandi, who is ordered to fake an injury to avoid a possible match-up with an Israeli competitor at a world judo championship. The movie also stars Amir Ebrahimi as the judoka’s trainer, who is torn between loyalty to her country and her protege.

A Secret Collaboration Between Iranian and Israeli Filmmakers Shines at Venice Film Festival
A Secret Collaboration Between Iranian and Israeli Filmmakers Shines at Venice Film Festival

The movie was inspired by a real incident that happened in 2021, when the International Judo Federation gave Iran a four-year ban for pressuring one of its fighters not to face an Israeli. The movie also reflects the personal experiences of Amir Ebrahimi, who won the best actress award in Cannes in 2022 for ‘Holy Spider’. She fled Iran in 2008 for fear of imprisonment and lashings after a private video of her was leaked.

The Challenges of Making ‘Tatami’

Amir Ebrahimi and Nattiv faced many challenges and risks while making ‘Tatami’. They had to shoot the movie in Georgia, a country Iranians can easily visit, but they stayed in separate hotels, spoke English and did not let on that they were making such a politically charged film. They also had to work with a small crew and a low budget.

“I knew there are many Iranians there, so we were trying to keep it calm and secret,” said Amir Ebrahimi. “We were undercover. We knew it was a dangerous thing,” said Nattiv, whose previous movie ‘Golda’ premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

They also had to deal with the possible consequences of their collaboration, as Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has banned its athletes from competing against Israelis. Amir Ebrahimi said she had to think carefully 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.

The Style and Message of ‘Tatami’

The film was shot in black and white, using a tight, 4:3 format, like for old television programs. Nattiv explained that this was to convey the claustrophobic world that the characters live in.

“These women are living in a black and white world. There are no colors. The box is the claustrophobic world they live in. That is the one thing they want to break. They want their freedom,” he said.

The film also aims to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that both Iranians and Israelis have about each other. Amir Ebrahimi said that children growing up in Iran were made to fear Israel as an implacable enemy – something Nattiv said was also happening in his own homeland, with Iran portrayed as an existential threat.

Nattiv revealed that he had helped Amir Ebrahimi pay a clandestine visit to Israel, something that Tehran absolutely forbids for its citizens. He said that he wanted to show her the real Israel, beyond the media and politics.

“We wanted to make this film because we wanted to show that there is another way, that there is hope, that there is love,” he said.

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