A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Nasrin Sotoudeh: “Our children should not inherent silence from us.”


Nasrin Sotoudeh:
“Our children should not inherent silence from us.”

On the film, “Nasrin,” an immersive portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh
“To consider this solely a political documentary is to miss the rich human story that is given equal weight, and the source of the most touching moments of the film overall. Nasrin is undeniably also about love.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh: “Our children should not inherent silence from us.”
On the film, “Nasrin,” an immersive portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh

On the film, "Nasrin," an immersive portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh

T here are many poetic references, Persian and otherwise, that come to mind when viewing Nasrin, the outstanding, multi-layered documentary about human rights attorney and feminist Nasrin Sotoudeh. One comes from the late poet/activist Audre Lorde: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”

Nasrin the individual, and Nasrin the documentary, compellingly foster such connections with many who seek to create a world in which all have the inalienable human rights to speak as they wish, and make independent decisions about their lives. Nasrin’s story as an internationally respected human rights lawyer, and her incarcerations, have been well-reported. Her arrest and trial in absentia in June 2018—primarily for her continued support of activists such as the “Girls of Revolution Street” and their viral multiple protests of Iran’s mandatory Hijab law—resulted in a 2019 sentence of 38 years in prison, plus 148 lashes. [At this writing, Sotoudeh has been granted a temporary leave of absence from prison on the occasion of Nowruz.]

On the film, "Nasrin," an immersive portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh
From the Press Notes: "Secretly filmed in Iran: an immersive portrait of the world’s most honored human rights activist and political prisoner, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of the remarkably resilient Iranian women’s rights movement."

Though her life and work are the foundation of this film, the power of Nasrin—exceptionally rendered by its creators Jeff Kaufman and Marcia S. Ross, along with a host of video collaborators—is in how deftly it weaves a number of themes: political, cultural and individual, while remaining, most of all, essentially human. Nasrin Sotoudeh is our primary protagonist, yet there are a variety of voices that telescope in and out of our view, literally and figuratively, intersecting with the cause and the person. These individuals frame Nasrin’s life and experiences, and equally important, flesh out the history and current events of this society, presenting a chorus of voices who seek equal rights for all.

The film was documented over several years by a number of necessarily anonymous filmographers—many using phones or other personal technology—but the editing is seamless, and especially intimate, given the almost handmade aspect of the content. One feels a personal and singular access to places and spaces closed to many of us, such as judicial proceedings.

Kaufman and Ross have enviable resumes leading well-regarded, major film, theatre and music projects. Though their partnership—the former is the writer, director and producer, and the latter is the producer—in this venture is grounded in diverse expertise and exceptional research, their undeniable power is in narrative filmmaking. In the conversation that helped seed this essay, they noted their attraction to people and projects “who are at the center of a community of action,” particularly those “with the vision to draw others toward them.” Their desire to share “the richness of Iranian life and culture” is especially commendable, and the film presents many moments of quotidian life, which will be informative and interesting to those who only imagine an Iran full of protesting individuals on every street corner.

There is more to admire in this documentary than how it elevates the eminently inspirational and fascinating story of Nasrin Sotoudeh, her achievements and her current plight. In our conversation, the filmmakers underscored their commitment to showcase the “many phenomenal Iranian women” who are engaged in these causes, and “how many [of them] risk so much, sacrifice so much, for human rights.”

Because of that commitment, viewers are offered a number of intersecting narratives—that of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, exiled women’s rights activist Mansoureh Shojaee, Taghi Rahmani, Narges Hosseini, the renowned director Jafar Panahi, Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan—in Iran and throughout the world, all in pursuit of the basic human right of expression. They articulate in action and word the “common humanity that people share with each other” in ways that often put them in danger.

Kaufman and Ross also share the pleasures of community that the Persian culture values so deeply. Sotoudeh comments that “art is the best way to take on tyranny,” and by interspersing scenes of the artistic engagements that both Nasrin and Reza enjoy—a performance of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a poetry reading, and even trips to art galleries—the film presents the dichotomy of a country that is culturally vibrant despite all of the restrictions it enforces.

The documentary also offers insight into the nuances of what is said and inferred, and the consequences of information gathering. In one scene, Nasrin relays an anonymous call she received from Qom, during which she is asked if she is a Muslim. Though the answer could be a simple yes or no, she decides not to respond, because of the slippery slope that is sure to follow: what is the next question that will be asked? And the next? Who will determine what the right answers are, and whether it will end? Once one hands over even the smallest decisions to an entity, there’s no telling how many more might be taken away; an important consideration for us all, regardless of nation or culture. In the case of one of the central protests in the film, it is less about government forcing a woman to wear a head covering or deciding that she doesn’t have to: it’s that the choice should be in the hands of the individual.

On the film, "Nasrin," an immersive portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh
From the Press Notes: "Nasrin was raised in a conservative Muslim family, but she was taught to respect people of other faiths. As an attorney and activist, she has been a courageous champion of the Baha’i community and other religious minorities in Iran, while also fighting for the rights of women, children, journalists, artists, and those facing the death penalty."

Yet, to consider this solely a political documentary is to miss the rich human story that is given equal weight, and the source of the most touching moments of the film overall. Nasrin is undeniably also a love story: the commitment and love that Nasrin and her husband Reza share is the unshakeable foundation of their success and the strength of their family. Reza Khandan—a designer and graphic artist—is also an activist, who has been imprisoned several times and still faces a six-year prison sentence. Seeing their family throughout the documentary is deeply moving, though it can be heartbreaking, especially in a scene in which their two children are finally allowed to visit their mother during her 2010 imprisonment.

It is especially sweet to discover later in the film that Nasrin’s daughter, who with her brother admire and fully support their parents in their callings, is studying to be an artist. Her ability to make that decision is why Sotoudeh and Khandan and their many compatriots are willing to sacrifice the most priceless of human gifts, time with loved ones, to create a different world for their progeny, and to ensure that “our children should not inherent silence from us.”

Beyond its primary and critical goal to raise awareness of Sotoudeh’s plight, what elevates this documentary—as a work of witness, as inspiration and even as entertainment—is how organically it details the most human aspects of the central character. Nasrin the individual is a remarkable symbol of human rights, but she is also a mother, a wife, a lover of the arts. The filmmakers delicately manage the balance between the cause and the person, creating a work that will connect on many levels with viewers in all walks of life.

The last comment in the film is appropriately Nasrin’s: “I should have the right to be happy.”

She should. You should. We all should.

Nasrin is available for streaming on Vimeo and elsewhere. More on nasrinfilm.com.

All photos, notes, and materials about the film courtesy of Floating World Pictures.


Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh began her career as a bank employee. On the side, she wrote for newspapers and journals under different names about the violation of human rights and women’s rights. She started to practice law in 2003 and has often worked as a human rights activist with her husband, Reza Khandan. They have two children. Sotoudeh was arrested in June 2018 for representing women who publicly protested Iran’s mandatory hijab laws, and was sentenced to 38 years in prison, plus 148 lashes. Even in prison she has continued to challenge the authorities, and in 2020 she launched a hunger strike to protest poor health conditions and the risk of Covid-19 in Iranian prisons.


Jeff Kaufman

Jeff Kaufman produced, directed, and wrote the Emmy-nominated documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act Of Life (aired on American Masters), and the documentaries The State of Marriage, Father Joseph, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, Brush With Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman, and Education Under Fire, plus a number of short films for Amnesty International, and programs for The Discovery Channel, and The History Channel. He also edited/designed a book based on the film Every Act Of Life, contributed cartoons to The New Yorker, and illustrations to The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, wrote/illustrated several children’s books, and hosted daily radio shows in Vermont and Los Angeles.

Marcia Ross

Marcia S. Ross produced the Emmy-nominated documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act Of Life, and the documentaries The State of Marriage, Father Joseph, and The Savoy King. Additionally, she has a three-decade career as an independent casting director and casting executive, serving 16 years as EVP for Casting at Walt Disney Motion Pictures, and 5 years as VP for Casting and Talent Development at Warner Brothers TV. Some of her film and television credits include Clueless, Cujo, thirtysomething, Murder in Mississippi, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Princess Diaries, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Lookout, Enchanted, Oblivion, and Parental Guidance.

Photographs courtesy of Floating World Pictures

Continue Reading