Breaking Barriers: The Impact of ‘Tatami’ and the Struggle of Iranian Women in Judo

Breaking Barriers: The Impact of ‘Tatami’ and the Struggle of Iranian Women in Judo


Exclusive interview in Japan

Coach Maryam (Zar Amir) and athlete Layla (Arienne Mandi) of the Iranian women’s judo national team ©Juda Khatia Psuturi

Text by Junichi Shiratori

The movie “Tatami” depicts the conflict between an Iranian athlete who competed in the Women’s Judo World Championships and is forced by the government to withdraw to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete. This film, co-directed by Israeli director Gai Nattiv and Iranian director/actor Zar Amir, won two awards at the 2023 Tokyo International Film Festival: Special Jury Award and Best Actress Award. We spoke with director Nattiv, who visited Japan, and producer and actor Jamie Ray Newman.

So that the oppression of women becomes a thing of the past

──Tatami was released for the first time in Japan amid rising tensions in the Middle East. First of all, Director Nattiv, how are you feeling now?

nativUnfortunately, the kind of war that is currently occurring is not a new situation. There was a war in 1973 when I was born, and I have encountered similar situations many times. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve always been nervous, even to this day.

──This film depicts the struggle of Leila (Arienne Mandy), an Iranian female judoka who is ordered by the government to abstain. What points did you keep in mind when creating it?

nativI was conscious of depicting how the Iranian government is torturing its people and is especially aggressive towards women.

This fall marks exactly one year since the Mahsa Amini incident that occurred in Tehran in September 2022. This is a tragic incident in which Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman, was taken away by the police and later died because she was inappropriately wearing a hijab, a black cloth that covers her head.

After that, it became a very memorable event for the Iranian people, with large-scale riots and demonstrations occurring all over Iran.

Tatami is based on a real incident that happened at the 2019 World Championships, but it also has elements of homage to the Mafusa Amini incident. We believe that by releasing this work just as one year has passed since the incident, the feelings we wish to convey will have even deeper meaning.

Tatami co-director Guy Nattiv and producer/actor Jamie Ray Newman Photo: Junichi Shiratori

NewmanThis song expresses the hope that “a situation where women are oppressed like the one depicted in this work will never happen again.” We sincerely hope that the situation in which the government deprives its citizens of various freedoms will end as soon as possible and become a thing of the past.

Coach Maryam of the Iranian national team initially persuades Leila to withdraw from the tournament, but… ©Juda Khatia Psuturi

Even if there are conflicts between governments

──This film is co-directed by Nattiv, an Israeli director, and Amir, an Iranian director. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two countries continues to be strained, but by working together, a wonderful work was completed.

nativIt was the first film in film history to be co-produced by an Israeli and an Iranian. For example, it’s like North and South Korean directors working together to make a movie. Even in countries with conflicting governments, artists can work together to make a movie. can. I hope I can convey that as well.

Although both governments have sowed various poisons in the past, Iranians and Israelis are able to forge a very close friendship.

Like John Lennon’s “Power to the People,” I hope this work will be the first step for the people to take back power from a corrupt government.

──Did you ever discuss international situations or political topics during filming?

nativThe Iranian government uses various methods to suppress the freedom of its people. In some cases, citizens may be imprisoned. Due to these circumstances, various incidents occurred during filming, and we talked about both countries each time. Perhaps the correct expression is “I had no choice but to be aware of it.”

NewmanThe filming location was Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Tbilisi is a city about two hours by plane from Iran and Israel, and many Iranians and Israelis come there.

The shooting was right after the news broke that “Iranian troops had sent a hitman (assassin),” so there was a sense of tension and fear. The footage was secretly filmed while being careful not to leak any information that “Israelis and Iranians are cooperating.”

nativJust like “defectors” from North Korea, there are many Iranians around the world who have fled the country, and the government also has a variety of information on them. Because of this background, government officials from Israel and the United States came to see the shoot, and I think it was a very tense atmosphere at the filming location.

Leila, who competed in the tournament with the aim of becoming Iran’s first gold medalist, chose to continue competing despite receiving requests from the government to withdraw and various threats ©Juda Khatia Psuturi

Why black and white images have the same angle of view as a CRT TV

──Why did you take all these risks to create “Tatami”?

nativThis is nothing but a strong desire to create a work that will go down in history. This was also the case with movies like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986), both about the Vietnam War. I felt that I had to take a risk and go into filming.

This movie was made with the desire to “promote our message to people around the world,” so it’s not just for fun and entertainment. I think that if you watch my work, you will get a sense of this as well.

──The work is black and white, and I was impressed by the fact that it uses the same 4:3 viewing angle as a CRT television.

nativThe women living in Iran are truly trapped in a box, living a life without freedom or color, so I used black and white images and angles of view that are cut off at both ends to express this. I incorporated it.

I would be happy if you could feel the sense of hopelessness that these women feel every day and seep into their lives, and the sense of relief they feel when they gain freedom.

When you watch Iranian films, you often see women portrayed as if they have no claims at all. The Iranian women who appear in Tatami are very intelligent and have a strong desire to create a new history. I would be happy if everyone who watched my work could be given the same strong power as these girls.

NewmanThe main character, Layla, continues to compete in judo matches in hopes of becoming free. In order to make both of these things come true, the story depicts a small person desperately fighting against a large organization.

Layla’s desire for freedom tends to get a lot of attention, but I think it’s because of her husband who supports her that she is able to pursue her own way of life. He has a very modern way of thinking and supports Layla. I also want you to pay attention to the image of Leila’s husband watching her fight.

Reason for choosing judo as the theme

──Why did you choose judo?

nativUnlike other sports, judo doesn’t involve much blood, and it has a long history. There is also a culture of respecting the opponent by facing each other and bowing before the match begins.

Therefore, I felt that it was in line with Leila’s values ​​of accepting and respecting each other’s diversity, which is what she values ​​most.

I think it would be very meaningful if we could convey the importance of “fighting fair and square” through judo, which is a very popular sport in both Iran and Israel.

I think judo is a sport that symbolizes the greatness of Japan. I have always loved Japan’s sports, food, and family values, and have always been inspired by them.

Above all, I love Japanese movies to the extent that I think they are the best in the world, and I have been influenced by the works of directors Akira Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano.

I’m really happy that we were able to screen the Asian premiere of “Tatami” in Japan, the birthplace of judo, and it feels like a dream come true. We are really happy that so many people saw our film at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.

Japan is a truly wonderful country, but if you look at other countries around the world, there are many problems. I hope that as many people as possible can learn about this through “Tatami”.


Junich ShiratoriBorn in Tokyo in 1983.Writer focusing on sports and entertainment

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2023-11-20 06:34:58
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