In a documentary brilliantly crafted by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross, the inspiring story of Nasrin Sotoudeh's fight for equality and her own freedom from an Iranian prison is bravely captured on film. News24's lifestyle editor Herman Eloff sits down with the filmmakers to discuss the making of the film.
This week marked the third year that human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been incarcerated as a political prisoner in the most dangerous and worst prison in Iran known for its inhumane medical and psychological conditions.
Surviving Covid-19, heart issues, and a 40-day hunger strike, her incredibly inspiring story of resilience and her fight for equal rights are bravely captured in the critically acclaimed documentary Nasrin.
Created by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross and narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Olivia Colman, the must-see film is a harrowing tale that exposes the injustices Nasrin and many others have suffered in Iran.
Nasrin, often referred to as the Nelson Mandela of Iran, is one of the world's most courageous human rights lawyers and a leading figure in Iran's remarkably resilient women's rights movement.
The documentary - which was secretly filmed in Iran by men and women who risked arrest to get the footage out - includes interviews with acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, journalist Ann Curry, and Nasrin's husband and fellow-activist Reza Khandan.
Nasrin, who represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 Iranian presidential elections, was first arrested in September 2010 and put in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. She was released in September 2013 after a worldwide campaign supported by Amnesty International.
In June 2018, she was imprisoned again. She is currently being held in Qarchak prison as an international #FreeNasrin campaign, supported by millions of people from over 200 nations, is putting pressure on the Iranian government to have her released.
"We heard from her husband a couple of times last week. It's been hard, but her spirit is strong," writer and director Jeff Kaufman tells me on Saturday evening via a Zoom call from Los Angeles. We are joined by his wife and fellow filmmaker, Marcia.
According to Jeff, Nasrin is living in horrible conditions in Qarchak, a women's prison east of Tehran in the desert: "It's so unsanitary. She almost instantly got Covid. So, she's been dealing with Covid and a heart condition. She was on short medical leave where she had an angioplasty. Just last week she released a public statement on behalf of another prisoner, which tells you a lot about her character. She's in a very small cell, crowded with other prisoners, with no windows, no ventilation, bad water, bad food, and a terrible smell. It's a crime."
Jeff and Nasrin's paths crossed in 2011 while working on the 30-minute documentary, Education Under Fire. The film spotlighted the persecution of the Baha'is of Iran, with a special focus on the at-risk Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).
Many of the Baha'i Faith are arrested, tortured, and even executed in Iran if they refuse to recant their beliefs. In a poignant scene in the new documentary, Nasrin speaks of receiving an anonymous call from someone who demanded to know if she was Muslim or Baha'i. The simplest and safest answer would be to state that she is indeed Muslim, but Nasrin refuses to answer. Instead, she fearlessly opts to keep her religion private. She refuses to protect herself, knowing that there are people who aren't free to practise their religion.
Getting Olivia Colman on board as narrator
"Our commitment is to what Nasrin stands for, to telling her story, but now it's also to getting her out of prison. When we first reached out to Nasrin to do this film, she - as it's so common for her - said: 'Okay, but I really hope it's about others as well.' That was always our intent. So, whenever we talk about Nasrin, we remind people that in every country, there are people like Nasrin, and they all deserve our support," Jeff adds.
One of the biggest challenges that faced Jeff and Marcia was that they simply couldn't go to Iran themselves to film the documentary due to their previous work in exposing injustices in the country. "Even if we could have gone, it wouldn't be a great way to get the kind of access we wanted for this film," Jeff says, adding, "If we're walking around with an American film crew, you're going to get arrested, you're not going to get good footage. So, we were able to work with some remarkable individuals who put themselves at risk to make this film with Nasrin.
"We're just so grateful to what they did and their access. One person has since had to flee Iran, not because of our film but because of other work they've done in the past. It shows the pressure that people like that are put under. We want to honour what they did."
Although most of the film is in Farsi, letters and news articles highlighted throughout are narrated in English by The Crown actor Olivia Colman. Getting Colman on board was something both Jeff and Marcia really wanted to accomplish, and this in itself warranted some manoeuvring to make it all come together.
Marcia explains: "We had all these letters and poems, which was another element to film. We wanted to find somebody to do it who kind of embodied Nasrin. The right person who had the combination of strength and vulnerability and made that connection.
"In Jeff's homework, he found that Olivia had a history of human rights activism. We had initially approached her, but she was very busy. We looked into some other people, but we just decided to go back to her. I'm a casting director, so I know all these agents and these managers. I called her London agent. She's got an agent specifically for her voice work. Forty-eight hours later, they were like: 'Yeah, we just need to get her cleared from The Crown.'
"Jeff flew over there for literally a day to have three hours working with her in a studio. Honestly, she had been on vacation with her family, they had gotten back on Wednesday, she was doing this with Jeff on Thursday, she had fittings for the next season of The Crown, and she was going back to work on the following Monday. It was amazing. She was just incredible, and she so related to Nasrin."
According to Jeff, Olivia was wholly blown away by Nasrin's courage and tenacity in pursuing equality. "She just embodies something special that Nasrin has. Midway through the voiceover, she's in her booth, and the engineer and I are in the other room looking through the glass, and she's doing the read, and all of a sudden, she just slams down her fist and says: 'Damn this woman is amazing,' and she goes on," he says before adding with a smile: "And it wasn't the word 'damn' by the way."
As our call comes to an end, Jeff reveals that Nasrin managed to smuggle a letter to them a couple of years ago in which she thanked them for the work they had done. "In it, she said something like: 'We walk towards each other in freedom.' I love that idea of coming together across cultures, trying to find common ground and friendship.
"It's such a difficult world right now, and we see democracy at risk of slipping away in country after country after country. Especially when people have fought so hard for it in the first place. I think the inspiration of someone like Nasrin; it's not just about her, it becomes about something bigger.
"Nasrin's story, like all stories that are happening, is ongoing. We wanted to tell the story not just of her work and her arrest but how things carry on beyond that. We kept working on the film for another few months after her arrest and were able to incorporate some remarkable footage. The film ends, but the story doesn't end. The sequel is really what we all decide to make out of it."