Israeli, Iranian Directors Join Forces on Film About Judoka Earning Ire From Iranian Regime
by Shiryn Ghermezian
Israeli director Guy Nattiv and his Iranian counterpart Zar Amir Ebrahimi are teaming up for a new movie and have become the first filmmakers from Israel and Iran to co-direct a feature film, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Untitled Judo is about an Iranian female judoka named Leila, played by The L Word: Generation Q actress Arienne Mandi, and her coach Maryam, who will be played by Ebrahimi. Together they travel to the Judo World Championship with the hopes of bringing home Iran’s first gold medal but in the middle of the competition, the Iranian government orders Leila to fake an injury and lose a match. Forced to make a decision that could affect her and her family’s freedom, Leila must choose between following orders from the Iranian regime, as Maryam urges her to do, or ignore their demands and continue to compete for the gold medal.
The storyline resembles real-life events with Iranian judoka and Olympic athlete Saeid Mollaei, who has said that Iranian officials ordered him to forfeit a match at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo to avoid potentially going head-to-head with an athlete from Israel. Mollaei afterwards refused to return to Iran and instead sought asylum in Germany. The International Olympic Committee later approved from him to compete for Mongolia instead of his home country.
Many other Iranian athletes have faced the same pressure from the Islamic Republic to throw matches against competitors from Israel due to Iran’s longstanding ban on having its athletes compete against anyone from Israel.
“The story we’re telling in this film is the story of too many Iranian athletes who lost their lifetime opportunities, sometimes forced to leave their countries and beloved ones because of the conflict between systems and governments,” Ebrahimi told The Hollywood Reporter. “May this artistic and cinematographic collaboration with Guy be a tribute to them, beyond frenzies of blind hatred and mutual destruction.”
The film, currently in post-production, is being produced by Israel’s Keshet Studios in association with White Lodge Productions, New Native Pictures, Maven Pictures, Tale Runners and Sarke Studios and WestEnd Films, which has worldwide rights for the project. It is being supported by WestEnd’s WeLove label, which develops, produces and supporters female creatives and female-led content.
Nattiv is also co-producing the film. The script was co-written by Elham Erfani and the film stars Jaime Ray Newman (Dopesick, Little Fires Everywhere), Nadine Marshall (The Silent Twins, Small Axe) and Mehdi Bajestani (Holy Spider).
“It is a tremendous honor to be collaborating with these true creative forces of nature – Zar, Arienne and Elham, bringing this important story to life,” said Nattiv. The Oscar-winning director added that Untitled Judo “is more than a movie to all of us. It’s a creative statement to the world as thousands of innocent Iranian people are paying with their lives for freedom.”
Erfani said she feels honored to write the film and “grateful to have the opportunity to be a voice for the oppressed Iranian athletes, and to bring their stories to the world through this film.”
“As an Iranian woman who has experienced the suffocation of life in Iran and has a deep understanding of its problems, I wanted to bring to light the challenges faced by women in Iran,” she said. “So many of us have been forced to leave our homes and loved ones in search of freedom and peace. Despite being separated by distance, this film reminds us that there is power in unity and resistance.”