Monday, November 16, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Nasrin

This is a film that will put to shame the spate of recent legal documentaries to shame glorifying groups that have narrowed the definition of free speech and broadening the grounds to restrict it (looking at you, ACLU). In contrast, Iranian attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh represented women, censored artists, and the most vulnerable defendants facing the death penalty in Iran. For her efforts, she has been imprisoned twice and awarded the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Human Thought. Filmmaker Jeff Kaufman follows the busy Sotoudeh as she navigates Iran’s kangaroo courts on behalf of her clients and documents her second arrest and imprisonment in Nasrin, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Who are Sotoudeh’s clients? They are the Baha’i, who are denied all legal rights in Iran due to their faith. They are minors facing execution after the police tortured murder confessions out of them. They are the desperate mothers of children that are being sexually abused by their fathers, whom have all custody rights under Iran’s Islamist law. Increasingly, they are also women, like Sotoudeh herself, who have defied Iran’s headscarf laws. In her case, Sotoudeh did so while serving time in political wing of Evin Prison, where she refused to wear the institutional chador.

Sotoudeh never did it alone. She was always part of a network of human rights activists (we hesitate to use the term “human rights,” since the regime has done its best to demonize it as a Western, anti-Islamic construct). Yet, she is always the first to credit her husband Reza Khandan for his support and commitment to a freer society. Her supporters also include the great, state-blacklisted filmmaker Jafar Panahi (who probably understands what she has endured better than anyone). He even gave her a part in his charming guerilla film,

So, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Recently, well after Kaufman locked
Nasrin, Sotoudeh was provisionally released from prison. Unfortunately, she subsequently tested positive for Covid, which isn’t surprising. The Iranian government was warned their prison were a perfect incubator for Covid, but they obviously did not care. Regardless, Sotoudeh is still hardly free now. As she herself says in a speech following her first release, she went from “the small prison to the big prison.”

It is easy to see why the Iranian state fears Sotoudeh. She is a passionate and effective advocate for her clients. As a documentary protagonist, she is compelling and engaging—and she clearly knows the law. We root for her (and her family) quite keenly. Yet, Kaufman and a handful of talking heads (like Ann Curry, who interviewed Sotoudeh) make the critical point that she really better represents the attitudes of average Iranians (especially the younger generations), who want greater freedoms of expression, tolerance, and better relations with the West. Whereas, the government and the religious authorities only represent their own oppressive ideology.

Nasrin, Kaufman and company give a vivid sense of life in today’s Iran. It is warm and inviting behind closed doors, but the street patrolled by the morality police are harsh and the legal system is inflexible, unjust, and unforgiving. This is a wholly absorbing film that inspires admiration for its subject and outrage at for her punitive prosecution. It might also boast the best original film song of the year, “How Can I Tell You,” stirringly performed by Angelique Kidjo. Very highly recommended, Nasrin screens online, as part of this year’s DOC NYC, through 11/19.