Interview'We became this mishpocha of Iranian exiles and Israelis'

After tackling Golda, director Guy Nattiv goes to the mat for Iran’s exiled athletes

The Israeli filmmaker discusses his new film, ‘Tatami,’ which grapples with anti-Israel pressure on Iranian judokas, and blames jeers for his Meir biopic on the political climate

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Director Guy Nattiv, second from right, with the actors in 'Tatami,' filmed in Georgia in 2022, his latest film about an Iranian athlete forced to make an impossible decision (Courtesy Guy Nattiv)
Director Guy Nattiv, second from right, with the actors in 'Tatami,' filmed in Georgia in 2022, his latest film about an Iranian athlete forced to make an impossible decision (Courtesy Guy Nattiv)

Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nattiv began thinking about female Iranian athletes rebelling against their country’s regime several years ago.

He was following the stories of Olympic taekwondo champion Kimia Alizadeh, who fled to Germany in January 2020, boxer Sadaf Khadem who has been living in exile in France since 2019, Iranian Olympic skier Atefeh Ahmadi who quit her home country and applied for asylum in Germany and others.

The women became inspirational fodder for Nattiv’s latest film, “Tatami,” about a female Iranian judoka told by her coach to fake an injury rather than go up against an Israeli competitor and be branded a traitor to the Islamic Republic.

Nattiv suggested a short film on the subject of Iranian athletes to Israeli production studio Keshet International, and the studio instead proposed a full-length feature. The result is a visceral, raw political thriller that has elements in common with “Skin,” the 2018 short about racism in America written and directed by Nattiv, which garnered him an Academy Award.

Tatami is homage to these women, said Nattiv in a Times of Israel interview. It’s an Iranian female power film, inspired by female athletes required to wear a hijab.

“Tatami,” the term for the traditional Japanese mat used in judo matches, follows a single night in the lives of judoka Leila Hosseini (played by Iranian Chilean Arienne Mandi) and coach Maryam Ghanbari (Zar Amir Ebrahimi).

Leila is on a winning streak at the World Judo Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia, when Maryam gets the call from Iranian authorities to abort her campaign for a gold medal. She tells Leila to fake an injury rather than meet the Israeli competitor in person.

“‘Leila says, ‘Who cares? We’re going for the gold,'” said Nattiv in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. The film, shot in black-and-white, builds on the tensions between coaches and athletes. It includes scenes showing interactions between the Iranian and Israeli judokas, while also spotlighting Leila’s family cheering back home in Iran.

The movie was filmed in the fall of 2022 in Tbilisi, chosen for its close proximity to both Iran and Israel. Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes in 2022 for her role in “Holy Spider,” co-directed “Tatami” with Nattiv, something he requested before they’d even met in person.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi, left, as coach Maryam and Arienne Mandi as judoka Leila Hosseini in ‘Tatami,’ making the rounds of 2023 film festivals (Courtesy PR)

“I wanted her to direct with me, and have our voices together,” said Nattiv. “I’m Israeli, I’m Middle Eastern but I couldn’t direct Iranian actors alone. It didn’t make sense.”

The addition of Iranian screenwriter Elham Erfani provided further layers to Nattiv’s script, he said. Part of the movie’s sound comes from music by Iranian female rapper Justina, who brought three of her songs to the set.

“So suddenly we became this mishpocha [family] of Iranian exiles and Israelis that live outside Israel,” he said. “The vibe was there — we love the same food, we love the same music, the same jokes. It felt like a family dinner, it felt right.”

The cast and crew lived in Tbilisi in a handful of hotels for several months, speaking in English so as not to attract attention. They called the film “The Judo Project” as a kind of code name.

Director Guy Nattiv photographing one of the ‘Tatami’ actors in a Tblisi, Georgia stadium in 2022 (Courtesy Guy Nattiv)

With funding from Keshet International and private equity, Nattiv’s team rented a Tbilisi stadium for three weeks, “and shot the hell out of it,” he said. They had the judo coach of the Georgian team on set throughout and moved quickly, filming in just 24 days.

After filming wrapped, “Tatami” producer Moshe Edry was able to help get Ebrahimi, who lives in Paris, into Israel to work on the editing with Nattiv.

“There she was, drinking coffee with me in Tel Aviv,” said Nattiv.

“She said it felt very right,” he recalled, but it was also completely bizarre given that she had grown up in Iran, where she had to step on the Israeli and US flags in school every morning.

‘Not easy to be an Israeli artist right now’

At the Venice Film Festival in early September, “Tatami” received a standing ovation and has so far been sold to eight countries and a long list of film festivals, said Nattiv. He is still waiting for word from several of the world’s top film events.

“It’s very different from ‘Golda,’” said Nattiv, referring to his most recent film, the historical biopic he directed starring Helen Mirren, currently playing in theaters worldwide.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi, left, and Guy Nattiv, co-directors for ‘Tatami,’ at the 2023 Venice Film Festival (Courtesy Guy Nattiv)

The film on Israel’s first female prime minister received plenty of attention, but didn’t do as well in theaters, taking in just $4.4 million worldwide, and got mixed reviews, which Nattiv attributes to global criticism of Israel.

“When I met Helen Mirren in 2019, she said that Golda was a very controversial subject matter, and I said, ‘What, it’s Golda!’ and she said, ‘You’ll see, it will make a lot of ripples,’ and now I understand,” said Nattiv. “When you take such a complicated woman and leader it will arouse a lot of reaction, both good and bad.”

American Jews love Meir, said Nattiv, while Israelis are divided. Some view her as the country’s worst prime minister ever, while others thank Nattiv for his “beautiful gesture” toward the former prime minister.

“Non-Jews feel Israel has become extreme, and they feel ‘Golda’ represents Zionism, and Zionism right now is a complicated issue,” said Nattiv, who lives with his family in Los Angeles, where he relocated about 10 years ago. “Being an Israeli artist right now in the world is not easy.”

Nattiv doesn’t regret making “Golda,” which gave him the opportunity to work with Mirren, “the best actress in the world.”

Guy Nattiv, center, with Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger, left, and Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in ‘Golda’ (Courtesy Guy Nattiv)

He points out that “Golda” earned $5 million in one month following its release, “which isn’t bad for an indie film,” he said, and has reached 200,000 viewers in Israel, considered a very decent showing. It will be released in Europe and the rest of the world in October.

The film had an $80 million budget when Nattiv was hired as director, and at first included expensive, extensive battle scenes. But the budget was cut once the pandemic hit.

Nattiv instead turned “Golda” into a “very claustrophobic film,” he said, full of long, dark hallways and eerie sounds of Golda lighting one of her many cigarettes, walking down a hallway or watching a flock of birds disperse in the sky.

The US reviews of the film are “a blow,” he said, “but luckily I have ‘Tatami’ which is my script. It has a lot of heart and soul and it’s a marvel that it’s a rare combo of enemies who became friends.”

Nattiv’s next film project is “Harmonia,” about his Holocaust survivor grandmother who found her way out of a severe midlife depression through the help of a belly dancer who turned out to be a “cult leader,” drawing his grandmother away from her family and loved ones.

The film follows Nattiv’s mother and aunt as they attempt to extract the grandmother from the group, which eventually moved to Virginia where it established an ashram in an existing community known as Yogaville.

“My mom tells me, ‘Guychik, make a beautiful romantic film,'” said Nattiv, who briefly interrupted the phone interview to take a phone call from his mother. “I said, Mom, that’s me. I like to go into the hard topics because those are the kinds of movies I grew up watching, and that’s what I want to make.”

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