‘Tatami,’ a film inspired by Iran’s Israeli athlete boycott, is making movie history


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — A film being billed as the first co-production by Israeli and Iranian filmmakers debuted at the Venice International Film Festival after a secretive production process that included a trip to Israel by the Iranian co-director.

“Tatami,” which received a standing ovation Saturday at the prestigious film competition, tells the story of a female Iranian judoka champion who is ordered to fake an injury to avoid facing an Israeli opponent at a judo championship.

The story is loosely based on the 2019 incident in which Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei was ordered to throw matches at the World Judo Championships to avoid facing Israeli Sagi Muki, who would ultimately win the tournament. The International Judo Federation banned Iran from all international competitions over the incident. (The ban was later reduced to four years.)

Co-directed by Israeli Guy Nattiv, the Oscar-winner who also helmed “Golda,” and Iranian Zar Amir Ebrahimi, “Tatami” was shot in Tbilisi, Georgia — a country that Iranians can easily visit — beginning in the spring of 2022. The project was kept in strict secrecy because of Iran’s potential reaction to the production. Iran does not recognize Israel’s existence and, as the film’s plot underscores, forbids its athletes from competing against Israelis.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film’s title and plot were kept secret throughout the public casting stage. It was first announced publicly in February 2023 with the name “Untitled Judo.” (A tatami is the traditional Japanese mat used in judo matches.)

“We were undercover. We knew it was a dangerous thing,” Nattiv told Reuters.

“Tatami” also drew inspiration from the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly beaten by police in Tehran over Iran’s mandatory hijab policy last year. Her death sparked an unprecedented protest movement across Iran.

“We just felt this sudden urgency of telling the story,” Amir Ebrahimi told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think we all somehow felt like we were in this revolutionary time while making this movie.”

Amir Ebrahimi, who won the best actress award at Cannes last year and also stars in “Tatami,” herself fled Iran in 2008 over fear of imprisonment stemming from a sex tape scandal. After filming had wrapped, she took a secret trip to Israel to assist with editing.

“It was very emotional for both of us,” Nattiv told The Hollywood Reporter. “Zar told me she had been dreaming about this moment, because she’d been looking at Israel as something so hostile from back home when she was a kid, and now she’s there drinking coffee with her Israeli friend.”

Amir Ebrahimi said she “felt at home” in Israel.

“I loved it. We could be from the same nation, the same family, we are the same,” she told Reuters.