With Tatami, Golda helmer Guy Nattiv and Holy Spider star Zar Amir have crafted what’s billed as the first feature co-directed by an Israeli and an Iranian. The film, which bowed in the Horizons section here in Venice, is a sports drama with stakes that are far higher than winning or losing a match.
Shot in Tbilisi, Georgia, essentially equidistant from the filmmakers’ respective home countries, this was a risky proposition for both. But also one they couldn’t shy away from.
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Nattiv conceived of the story, but, as he says in the Q&A below, couldn’t see himself making it alone. After casting Amir, who lives in Paris, and knowing she was preparing to direct her next film, he invited her to share helming duties, “I’m not Iranian and I didn’t want to tell this story alone,” he told Deadline.
The story takes place during the Judo World Championships, when Iranian Leila and her coach Maryam receive an ultimatum from the Islamic Republic ordering Leila to fake an injury and lose, lest she be branded a traitor of the state. With her own and her family’s freedom at stake, Leila is faced with an impossible choice: comply with the Iranian regime or fight on for the gold.
Below, Nattiv and Amir discuss the genesis of the project and how they collaborated to make this first of a kind film. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
DEADLINE: How did you come guys come together? And Guy, what made you want to share directing with Zar?
ZAR AMIR: In a very natural way. I got a casting offer through my German agent, and a few months after, Guy offered it to me. It was three months before Cannes (when I got the call) and Guy had this time to watch Holy Spider too. I think that was the main reason, Guy?
GUY NATTIV: Also, your audition was amazing, but when I watched Holy Spider, my jaw dropped. Zar was just phenomenal and amazing, also I’m a big fan of Ali Abbasi. Then I contacted Zar and offered her the role.
Because I’m Israeli, I’m not Iranian, I didn’t want to tell this story alone. I felt that I really wanted Zar to direct it with me because I knew she was planning to to direct her next movie and I also wanted her to cast the movie.
I wrote the script with Elham Erfani, who is also Iranian and living in France. We became kind of a group Iranians and Israelis together hiding in Tbilisi, Georgia in a hotel trying to do it under the radar two hours from Iran and two hours from Tel Aviv.
DEADLINE: Guy, what made you want to tell a story about the plight of Iranian athletes?
NATTIV: I was inspired by a few stories that I read about female athletes, that actually rebelled against the system, against the regime. It was connected to Israeli athletes because outside of Israel and Iran, they were friends, they met in competitions and they were like us, like Zar and I. It took us five minutes to decompress, to de-freeze; we eat the same food, we love the same music, we feel like brothers and sisters, for me she’s family.
So I read about these stories that really inspired me a lot. It was in the middle of the pandemic and there were little stories coming here and then and Sadaf Khadem, one of the Iranian boxers, couldn’t box in Iran and she was prosecuted and she fled to France, and then more and more athletes, so it became like a real movement.
I think sport, music and everything that connects people together is a great canvas to tell a human story. It’s kind of crazy, but judo is the number one sport in Iran and in Israel. Europeans know more about judo than Americans, but I think that once Americans or people that did not know about that story, watch this film, they will be connected on a human level through the goal of winning, the goal of the spirit.
DEADLINE: Iran’s Islamic Republic regime has been cracking down on dissent amid the Woman, Life, Freedom protests (which were supported by a flash mob here in Venice last weekend). Zar, you live in France, but to make the film, you were both hiding out in between your two home countries – what were the main challenges for each of you?
NATTIV: The Israeli government is really extreme right now. Meeting with other people from Iran it looks like we’re meeting with the enemy, it’s always suspicious and like, “Who did you meet with? Why?” So, it’s not like it’s all squeaky clean. It was a challenge for both of us, more for Zar, but for me as well. I had to make it look like I’m not meeting with the Iranian regime, I’m meeting with expatriates.
AMIR: When I got this offer for co-directing, I took my time to say yes because it’s risky. It’s risky for any Iranian outside or inside. This is exactly what the Iranian government does to all these athletes…
The real danger is to go through your whole life and all events with hatred. This is also something I grew up with in Iran and always thought there was an enemy, not just the Israeli government, there was always an enemy somewhere and we had to hate some people, and then we started to hate each other. I think the real danger is because this is a revolutionary time in Iran, and just by chance when we started to shoot it was just two months after the death of Mahsa Amini.
I had this feeling that we are, as Guy says, not just doing a movie, it’s more than a movie. This revolution is about changing the mentality. And this movie, for me this first-time Israeli-Irani collaboration, is somehow connected to that revolution, that changing mentality.
Last year, I was in almost all festivals and I use my voice, I try to be the echo of everything going on in Iran, I think now more than ever we need to be their voices because they don’t have any voice.
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DEADLINE: Zar, you’ve been a casting director and an assistant director, but this is your first feature. What did you take away from the experience?
AMIR: As a diaspora filmmaker, every time you do something about Iran or Iranian characters, it’s challenging. But then I think through all these 15 years that I lived in Paris, I learned a lot how to deal with these challenges.
Before starting the shoot, I had this impression that collaborating is so hard and the director is the captain of the whole thing and I’m not sure if with two captains we can reach the destination. But from the beginning, I felt that Guy is so generous and he’s so open and so we managed to have this authenticity about the Iranian stuff with me and then all the technical approach and aspect with Guy.
At some point, everything got mixed up, we talked about everything. It just went so smoothly and maybe that was my lesson — how to work with someone with two different cultures. We can be friends, we can be sister and brother, we really are very close… I learned a lot from Guy how to collaborate with your co-director, but also with screenwriters, composers, actors.
NATTIV: I want to give a kind of shoutout to Zar. There wasn’t any ego, it was pure art. We love the same movies, we basically think the same, we love everything the same, but Zar is a natural. Her approach to actors is so sensitive. We always did a take if she’s not in the scene, then looked at the monitor and whispered something and we clicked, we were in a groove. It’s just what the politicians don’t want us to have. But if you ask the Iranian people or the Israeli people, we just want to have peace, mutual understanding without all those corrupt politicians.
DEADLINE: Zar did you feel like you were really directing yourself acting or did you let Guy do that part?
AMIR: That’s a good question because I’m going to direct myself in my next movie. I’m a fortunate person because I’ve always worked with directors who let me give them my concerns, and to direct myself too and to share my ideas about the scenes and the shots. But this time, because I was also the director, I tried to keep my distance from myself — as an actor/director both it’s complicated. I feel I let Guy more or less direct me.
NATTIV: I think I was also Zar’s perspective in a way. I showed her the scene and told her what I felt towards it and asked, “Do you want another one?” Listen, it’s not a giant budget movie, so we had a crunch time, but I do think that our instinct was similar.
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