'Nasrin' Documentary Is a Profile in Courage for the 21st Century

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the subject of Nasrin the compelling new documentary by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross, may be the bravest person you never met. She is a lawyer for women's rights and human rights in Iran, a country that does not seem to value either very much. To be more accurate: The government is intent on suppressing the rights of dissidents in general and women in particular. As seen throughout the film, the people of Iran are among the most welcoming and friendly in the world.

Sotoudeh is her country's Nelson Mandela: a courageous fighter for the rights of the underserved. She usually stays just within the law, but she is ready to go to prison, and in fact at this writing she is in prison—and has been several times. But she persists.

She does not always wear a hijab, the head covering scarf that women in Iran must wear in public. What to some Western eyes, would seem to be a relatively innocuous act, it a very big deal in this repressive state, an act of defiance that is almost unheard of.

Her defense of women not wearing a hijab has also led to her arrest. Nasrin is very public in her opposition, if not open defiance of the law and as such has a target on her back.

At one point, a colleague suggests that she should have a bodyguard, but Nasrin dismisses this offhand: She can't have a bodyguard all day every day. But it is clear that this is not an unreasonable request.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the situation got extremely repressive. Before the revolution, one dissident says that people were promised that the prisons would be turned into universities. Then he was arrested. And he saw that his fellow prisoners turned out to be professors and intellectuals. So the prisons did indeed become universities.

That Sotoudeh has had any success is amazing. The odds are stacked against her. Even when she argues the letter of the law in court, she is treated with a total lack of respect.

She knows that that the government would not be happy with any publicity. But nothing seems to deter her. And this riveting film shines a light on one of the most enlightened, exciting and courageous people in the fight for human rights.

Viewers should be forgiven if they feel like they are watching a 1960s- or 1970s-era paranoia film, like Three Days of the Condor, Parallax View or even Missing. But this is as real as it gets. People here are going about their daily lives, but no one feels truly safe. If Big Brother is not watching, then someone else probably is; and Sotoudeh is one slip-up or one betrayal away from disappearing into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Against this background, Sotoudeh and her husband, Reza Khandan, work diligently for their cause. And in so doing they seem to embolden the people. Women remove their hijabs in public and flaunt their defiance for the cameras. Sotoudeh's defense of these women proves to be the last straw for the government, which steps in and arrests her. But unlike anything in Kafka, Nasrin Sotoudeh is far from forgotten, as this film attests. She is as much a cause as a defender of a cause. And Nasrin is a profile in courage for the 21st century and a movie that really has to be seen.

Note: Since the film was completed, Sotoudeh was released from prison for health reasons, diagnosed with COVID-19, but on December 2 she was returned to prison.

Nasrin opens December 18 nationwide in virtual cinemas.

Nasrin Sotoudeh
Nasrin Sotoudeh is the subject of the compelling new documentary "Nasrin," by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross. Reza Khandan