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In a video from 2018, a woman stands at a busy traffic intersection in Tehran, takes off the headscarf mandated by law and waves it in protest. As we see in the stirring documentary Nasrin, other women follow suit in the next weeks. Today the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is in Iran’s notoriously brutal Evin prison for, among other politically-charged reasons, defending one of those women. Such basic facts would be chilling enough. Nasrin has spent nearly 20 years fighting for the rights of women and children, and against the death penalty, acts that led to her imprisonment from 2010-2013. In March 2019 she was sentenced again, this time to 38 and a half years and 148 lashes for offenses including “propaganda against the state.” The documentary takes us behind those facts, creating a partial but vivid first-hand account that includes comments from her and video of her meeting with clients, revealing why she has become a hero to human rights activists.
Nasrin, shown as part of the virtual GlobeDocs Film Festival, was made under challenging circumstances by director Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia S. Ross, whose last film was Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, a captivating profile of the playwright. Because of Kaufman’s 2011 short about religious persecution in Iran, he was not able to enter the country. Anonymous contributors there filmed Nasrin at home, in her office and at the market talking to clients on her phone.
The documentary does not display artistic flair or innovation, but that is not its purpose. It is solid and straightforward in style, but extraordinary in its access and in how clearly her personality and philosophy emerge.
Structurally, the film is creaky. At times it looks back, in text on screen and in talking-head interviews, at the history of Iran and how the 1979 takeover by the religious right, creating the Islamic Republic of Iran, eviscerated women’s rights, denying them the ability to divorce and requiring that they wear the hijab in public. That valuable context might have been woven in more fluidly. Looking backwards makes the documentary a bit diffuse, but it gains power as it goes along.
Olivia Colman serves as occasional narrator, reading from news reports and from Nasrin’s letters. In voiceover, Colman reads a 2012 letter Nasrin wrote from prison to her daughter, saying, “You and your brother were my main motivations for pursuing children’s rights.” As Colman speaks, we see a photo of Nasrin, her husband and fierce supporter Reza Khandan and their two children, all smiling together. Kaufman and editor Asher Bingham use stills and archival footage well. The photo is a reminder of Nasrin’s absence and of the everyday family life her imprisonment has deprived her of.
Khandan and other activists, including Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, speak about Nasrin. But the strongest and most frequently heard voice is her own, as recorded from 2017 until she was imprisoned last year. Often we see her driving to court or an appointment, talking along the way to the anonymous passenger with the camera. In one scene she is en route to the Moral Discipline Judicial Complex where so-called moral deviance cases are investigated, hoping to arrange bail for a client arrested for failing to wear a hijab. She is realistic about her chances, saying, “It is normal for them to sabotage the final steps.”
In those scenes and others directly addressed to the camera, she makes it clear that she opposes the government itself. “If you succeed in making us wear this half-meter of cloth, you will be able to do whatever you want to us,” she says about the hijab requirement. It would not be enough to change that law, she says; it should not be the government’s choice at all.
Despite the life-or-death stakes of her work, Nasrin emerges as a smiling and optimistic person. One of the more intimate videos shows a visit from her children while she is in Evin, seeing them from behind glass, playfully pretending to snatch her young son’s nose through the barrier. In Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the surreptitiously made 2015 film in which he drives the streets of Tehran posing as a taxi driver, she is a passenger who gets in carrying an armful of roses.
Nasrin has become even more urgent since Kaufman began it four years ago. Just last week, in news too late to be in the film, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Nasrin’s release on health-related grounds. She had been weakened by a hunger strike, and has heart problems that put her at risk because of the COVID-19 spread in prison. This eye-opening chronicle offers a chance to bring her story beyond the human rights community to an even larger audience.
Production Company: Floating World Pictures
Cast: Olivia Colman (narrator), Nasrin Sotoudeh, Ann Curry, Shirin Ebadi, Reza Khandan, Jafar Panahi
Director and Writer: Jeff Kaufman
Producers: Marcia S. Ross, Jeff Kaufman
Editor: Asher Bingham
Music: Tyler Strickland
Sales: Joe Amodei, Virgil Films and Entertainment
Venue: GlobeDocs Film Festival
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