– Guy Nattiv and Zar Emir Ebrahimi’s film follows an Iranian judoka fighting for a long-negated right to freedom

Review: Tatami

Zar Emir Ebrahimi and Arienne Mandi in Tatami

Tatami [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
is the first feature film to be co-directed by Israeli director Guy Nattiv, who recently gave us the biographical movie Golda [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, and Iranian director and actress Zar Emir Ebrahimi, who was honoured with an acting prize in Cannes for her performance in Holy Spider [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ali Abbasi
interview: Ali Abbasi
interview: Zar Amir Ebrahimi
film profile
]
. The present film – a political and decidedly feminist sports thriller which manages to hold the tension from the first image right on through to the last – sees Ebrahimi taking up position behind the cameras as well as playing the part of coach character Maryam. Whether it’s a matter of fighting for the title of world judo champion or demanding respect as a free and independent woman, the protagonist of Tatami sacrifices her own body on the altar of the feminist cause.

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Presented in a world premiere within Venice’s Orizzonti section and more recently in Geneva’s Black Movie Festival, Tatami is set during the judo world championships in Tbilisi, Georgia. Things are going surprisingly well for Iranian judoka Leila (an incredible Arienne Mandi), supported by her ever-faithful coach Maryam, but right in the middle of the competition the Iranian Judo Federation, and then the Islamic Republic, order her – using decidedly unlawful means – to withdraw from the competition to prevent her from coming face to face with the Israeli opponent whom they’re terrified she’ll lose against. Her family is in danger, but Tatami’s protagonist isn’t easily intimidated: she’s determined to assert the universal rights that should be guaranteed for everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Nattiv and Amir Ebrahimi orchestrate a very real and surprising dialogue between the tension of the judo competition – which is shot magnificently in cold yet deep black and white tones – and issues relating to politics and social justice. Enthralling from beginning to end, Tatami keeps us on the edge of our seats, prepared to fight at any moment for Leila, a modern horsewoman, of sorts, who is flung from her horse but carries on fighting regardless, without armour. Her coach Maryam is more ambiguous but no less intriguing as a character, plagued by the burden of past decisions which still weigh heavily on her present. Continually torn between following the rules for fear of the consequences potential disobedience might bring, and a thirst for freedom which she doesn’t (yet) have the courage to demand, Maryam lives a struggle through Leila which she herself would have liked to have fought. Solitary warriors fighting a system they’d like to escape and incredibly human heroines who are striving to defend values which are viscerally important to them, Leila and Maryam are characters who aren’t easy to forget.

Arienne Mandi’s imposing physical presence dominates the film’s judo matches, microcosms made up of grappling, throws and chokeholds, where the only difference that matters is how good you are at fighting. The cameras take a raw yet sophisticated approach to following Leila’s indomitable, wounded but never defeated body, a body which turns into a weapon with which to confront the protagonist’s own fears and an entire political regime. The film’s protagonists are cut off from the outside world, trapped in a labyrinth of half-lit corridors, offices and gyms where they train with military rigour. It’s these spaces which are both claustrophobic and comforting, and the sports journalist commentary in place of a soundtrack, which lend the film its deliciously raw and rough quality. Tatami is a courageous and aesthetically powerful film which doesn’t slide into the trap of a triumphalist finale, opting instead for an ambiguous victory which leaves indelible scars.

Tatami is produced by US firms Keshet Studios, White Lodge Productions and New Native Pictures, alongside Georgia’s Sarke Studio. International sales fall to British outfit WestEnd Films.

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(Translated from Italian)





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