Human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh participates in a protest. Photo courtesy of Floating World Pictures
In conversation with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, director Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia Ross discuss their new documentary Nasrin, which chronicles the work of renowned human rights lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh.
During the course of his celebrated career, Jeff Kaufman has chronicled religious figures, American icons, and has also helped us to learn the names of heroes who, all too often, remain undervalued in our public consciousness. As is the case with Nasrin Sotoudeh, Kaufman’s latest subject, an acclaimed Iranian lawyer and human rights activist. Through their documentary Nasrin, Kaufman and his producing partner, Marcia Ross hope to catapult Sotoudeh’s mission into the spotlight.
Sotoudeh, who is currently serving a prison sentence for her legal defense of young women protesting the hijab, proved to be a uniquely challenging subject for Kaufman and Ross. Beginning in 2016, Kaufman and Ross worked with crews in Iran to get secretly filmed footage of Sotoudeh out of the country, all the while knowing that her participation in the film could get Sotoudeh and her family in trouble with authorities.
What results is a film that radiates with urgency. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a fascinating subject— a brilliant legal mind, caring friend, loving mother, devoted wife, and an engaged (and enraged) citizen. Nasrin, streaming now on Hulu, is a documentary that not only celebrates its subject, but the culture which she represents—showcasing an Iran that is unknown, and often forgotten, to western audiences—one brimming with art, culture, warmth, understanding, and deep compassion. Nasrin is a stunning portrait of an extraordinary life.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with the classic documentary question of how much footage did you receive and how did that shape the arc of the documentary and in deciding the story that you were going to tell?
Jeff Kaufman: Well, having worked on a lot of films, it’s always a fascinating process. You know, when you look at the footage you shot and say, Oh, that turned out okay. Or, Oh, we messed up there. It’s a process. But this was different because we were working with crews who were putting themselves at risk to shoot with Nasrin. Just walking around with a camera following Nasrin on streets, and protests, and art galleries could get you arrested.
We couldn’t go there ourselves because of previous work we’ve done. So, we had a circuitous route to get the footage out of Iran. Sometimes several different ways. It was long and sometimes very delayed. Sometimes we’d be in discussions with people in Iran about what specifically we were hoping for. Other times we knew what might be coming, but we didn’t know exactly what that would be. It’s this magical thing to sit down and watch hours and hours of footage and go, Oh my gosh. So, the process was unlike any other film I’ve done before and really kind of magical at the same time, a lot because of the loyalty that Nasrin brings in people that she knows.
Let me just tell you one example: So, in the film, Nasrin goes to this theater, that could be theater in Greenwich Village, but it’s in Tehran and it’s putting out a production of Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden. Now that’s a pretty remarkable play, which is challenging an authoritarian regime about torture and imprisoning political dissidents—and it’s been put on in Iran. We got the first part of that story where Nasrin talks about a young woman who put on that play in Evin Prison when she was there herself. And this was a young woman who was a theater student who was arrested for protesting the regime. She got other prisoners in Evin Prison to act out the roles. She wrote it herself. And then she made a tape recorder, which was a key prop, out of things they found in the cell. I mean, just imagine that kind of moment. And then we found out that the young woman died right after getting out of prison, probably because of the physical impact of being in prison. It’s just an amazing sequence.
A year and a half later, we got the second half of the story where Nasrin then goes into a theater herself to see a production that’s dedicated both to that young woman who died, and to Nasrin. And you see the play actually produced, Nasrin talking about it, and the applause for both of them. But the separation between the two halves of that story was about a year and a half. The second part of it had actually been lost when Nasrin was arrested and only found after her husband, Reza Khandan, who had also been arrested, was finally released from prison. So that’s not the usual process.
AD: One question I had when watching the film was whether Nasrin knew that this footage taken of her was being used for documentary purposes. Or was it just that she decided she wanted to document pieces of her life and it just happened that it was turned into a film afterwards?
Marcia Ross: No, and can I just add that we’ve since learned a little bit of Farsi, but we don’t speak Farsi. So, we would get the footage, we’d be watching it, and Jeff would be transcoding it. And then through our translators we would learn what was being said—after we’d actually had somewhat of an emotional experience watching it.
Jeff had made a film called Education Under Fire  about the persecution of the Baha’i faith in Iran, about 10 years ago and he came across Nasrin at that time because she defends people of the Baha’i faith who are treated as criminals and can’t really be educated in the country. And this really made an impression on him, the idea of people of a different faith, helping their neighbors in a very serious and difficult situation could potentially put them in jail.
We were finishing our last film about the Broadway Theater and Terrence McNally [Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life]. And we started doing a little more research on Nasrin, then through a mutual introduction, we reached out to her and asked her if she’d be interested in having a film made about her. We had a lot of conversations with her, because of course, one of our biggest concerns was about the personal safety of the family. We really didn’t want to do anything that could, in any way, cause them to be arrested or brought in by the authorities.
She agreed, she said, Yes, I want to go ahead and make the film. And many times, over the making of the film, we would ask her, because we would have stopped at any time, Are you sure? Are you sure?
I am also of the belief, as this unfolded for us, that she knew she might get arrested again. And she was arrested while we were making the film for defending The Girls of Revolution Street, the young women who protested [the hijab] in the streets. I think that for her, it’s all about having a voice. I think the film became an opportunity for her to have the world know what she really thought and believed.
JK: As Marcia said, it was just a unique and wonderful collaboration with Nasrin. We’re in this time when there are so many walls put up between people in our own country and around the world, and this was a unique opportunity to knock down walls, that are huge and thick and connect in this really intense way.
A couple of years ago, Nasrin wrote us a letter when she was first imprisoned, that her husband then forwarded to us, and in part of it she said— We walk towards each other in friendship.
I just love that idea. And that this process, for us, and I hope for other people can help make that happen.
MR: You know, something that is really important to Jeff and me, and it’s something we talk about all the time—the country is not the people, and the people are not the country. The people of Iran are not necessarily the oppressive government that they live under. I mean, in our own country, there are hard-liners, we just saw it. But that doesn’t represent all Americans.
But for most people who don’t really follow the news that closely, that’s not what you see. The only thing most people in America know about Iran is what they read in the newspaper, which is usually what’s going on between our government and the Iranian government. They don’t really know about the people of the country.
That was a very important conversation we had over and over again as we were making the film and one of the reasons why we wanted to make this film.—we wanted to portray the life of the people in Iran, and particularly Nasrin’s life. We all share a common humanity and we wanted to make sure that that also came across. She represents many people in Iran that are very different from what you might read in the newspaper here.
AD: And what was your familiarity with Iranian culture going into this? Jeff, I know you’ve done documentaries about Iran. But, for both of you, what preconceived notions did you have that you were then willing to confront through this documentary? What’s changed for you over the years in making this? What have you learned?
JK: Yeah, I really appreciate that you asked that.
MR: That’s a great question.
JK: When you make a documentary, first of all, because it’s real life, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you have these foundational hopes of what you can accomplish. I’d done a whole number of films about Iran over the years, and read a lot about it and been fascinated, and over time I just had more and more respect for Iranian culture and the Iranian people again as a separate thing from the government. There’s just so much to explore. And I have to say that Nasrin really believes in the power of the arts. Her daughter is an artist. Her son is a musician. Her husband is a graphic artist and Nasrin, in her spare time, does artwork and writes poems. She’s got that breadth to her.
One of our goals at the beginning was that through Nasrin we could paint a portrait of the Iranian culture and the Iranian people in way that you don’t normally see.
But it all really depended on Nasrin’s ability to explore those worlds in her journeys and have the camera crews go with her. And it was always a hope to have, as Marcia says, that humanizing quality about Iran. It’s just deepened in the process. There is just this amazing scene where the camera follows Nasrin and her family into this art gallery. There’s a piece of art there that’s in tribute to Nasrin. And the work is just beautiful and it’s so diverse. There’s even a naked statue. It’s not the Iran that you think you’d see.
MR: When you have Americans watching this film, many of whom know nothing about Iran, and they go, Oh, there’s an Apple store? And snow in the mountains? That’s another thing that was really important for us to capture in the film —the beauty of the country.
You know, for me, Shadan, I’ve met a lot of Iranian people. We traveled to Europe and did a lot of interviews with people that live in exile and people we met in this country who live in exile and can never return to Iran. I didn’t know a lot of Iranian people before. There are a lot of Iranian people in Los Angeles, And I’m Jewish, I do know a lot of Iranian Jews in L.A. But we’ve met all of these people—intellectuals, doctors and scientists, all these people who fled Iran. They live here in the United States, in France, London, or in the Hague. People who cannot return to Iran and they worry about their family that’s left there because of their actions here. And we’ve become very close with a lot of Iranian people as a result of making the film. I think it’s been really life changing to meet these people and to listen to their stories and what they’ve gone through and what they’ve sacrificed and given up.
And that’s another thing Jeff and I talked a great deal about— how we want the country to be seen and to really capture for what that is for people, a physically beautiful country that these people can never go back to and we wanted to make sure that you could feel that when you saw it.
We’ve heard from so many Iranians who’ve seen the film and we’ve gotten the most wonderful feedback about how much it’s meant to them to see their country portrayed this way.
They’re showing their children and they’re watching it with their parents because they can’t go back. They can never take their children there. That has meant so much to me and to us. It has really been an underlying driving factor as we keep going through the launch of the film— hearing from people in this way. It’s very inspiring to us. And it’s why we make films.
JK: The other piece of wanting to make this film besides just being so knocked out by who Nasrin is— we started this at a time when there was this mass demonization of Islam in the United States and Iran in the United States, I would say for cheap political purposes. It was an indication, by the way, of how easy it is to manipulate people. And we’ve seen that increasingly over time. I started thinking about that a couple of years before we actually reached out to Nasrin. But by the time we started working with Nasrin in mid-2016, it was at the beginning of the Trump era.
So part of the film is also an answer to the mis-characterization of a whole people. And a hope that, as much as we’re criticizing the government, we’re also, as Marcia said before, really shining light on the humanity of the people. And saying you’re going to bomb Iran into some utopia—that is not the way to make progress.
MR: I think too, for me, I’ll speak for myself, I woke up the day after the [2016 presidential] election and I felt so sick because what I was really scared about was the loss of civil rights in this country. That was my biggest concern and we’ve seen voter suppression and a lot of things since then.
In the case of Iran, I think it’s really wonderful to see that in spite of the government, people really fight back. You know, they protest, they take risks. These young women taking their headscarves off in public know what can happen to them and they do it anyway. They show up and they vote and they really care about their rights. They have so much to risk for fighting for their rights, not just Nasrin, but all of them. I think it’s tremendous. I found it really inspiring and an important reflection.
I think we’ve seen for people who’ve seen the movie, they tend to also talk about that— how scared it makes them in some ways, because they realize, Look, what’s happening there. it could happen here.
AD: As you’ve mentioned, there are many scenes with Nasrin’s family and friends. There’s a real warmth and liveliness to the documentary, despite the fact that you have these harrowing images and subject matter. How did you strike that balance?
JK: Well, it’s funny. because when we made the [PBS’ American Masters] Terrence McNally documentary about the theater and about Terrance’s life, Marcia set a template for it, which is, We need to make this film for people who know nothing about the theater and for people who know everything about the theater. And how do you have that balance, right? And it’s even trickier when you’re talking about Iran because there’s a lot of contexts. But in both of those films, we wanted to show the humanity of the people at the center of it. They’re not stick figures and they’re not marble figures.
If you think about the three years, from 2010 to 2013, that Nasrin suffered in prison and what she’s been going through now, since her June 2018 arrest—the horrendous separation from her family—you’re only going to really feel that if you realize how much she adores her family and how much her family adores her.
Marcia has often referred to Nasrin’s husband, Reza Khandan, as Nasrin’s Marty Ginsburg— having that kind of love and support from someone who’s an equal, but someone who relishes your public position and your vision. That was essential to capture. And fortunately, her family is great!
I must say that throughout the time of her recent incarceration and also when Nasrin was released on a temporary medical leave, we’ve had a chance to talk to them, long-distance, through these long Zoom chats. I wish you could meet them! They are just the warmest people. They’re dedicated and believe in what they believe in. But they always have time for a joke, a big smile, and a concern about others. They are the real thing.
MR: Nasrin, she’s a mother and I’m a mother. This woman has put her life at risk for other people, which has caused her to be separated from her children and not be with them as they’re growing up.
This was something Jeff and I also talked a lot about—we need to answer that question. Because it’s something people, who know nothing about this, will want to understand. How do you balance that? And if you only have this one-sided portrait of her as an activist, you really missing the whole woman— a mother, friend, artist, all these other things—you’re missing that.
In order to understand why it is so important for her to do this— it is because she’s a mother. She does not see this as sacrificing her children to be motherless. She sees this as; I have to do this for the future of my children. I have to do this for the future of everybody else’s children.
That’s what is driving her—that actually being a mother is part of what drives her to want life to be better and freer for her own children.
Nasrin very respected and revered person in Iran by a lot of marginalized groups. And I think the reason is because she’s a full person, she represents people as people, not this political lane or that political lane, but humanity.
JK: What you just said about Nasrin as a mother and an activist is really what the film’s song is about too. [Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s How Can I Tell You?]
MR: The song, I mean, that’s Nasrin. Lynn and Steven, I can’t even express to you what they did, because it’s so remarkable. How they were able to capture the essence of this woman in that song. And that is very representative of what she’s doing as a woman, as a mother. And I think, as you asked, why did we have the family? Because you want to be emotionally invested in that part of her life. It does explain a lot. And I think the song really takes you even further into her emotional thinking.
AD: What can viewers do to learn more about and help support Nasrin’s case?
JK: But, we’ve been really gratified by fact that the film exists, as a film itself, but it’s also become a centerpiece of this global movement to, not only release Nasrin, but to drop charges against her, stop the harassment against her, stop the harassment against her family, and apply those same standards to other political persons in Iran.
I have to say that one of our strong feelings is that this is not just about demanding human rights in Iran. We often call for the same standard replied to this country. You can’t honestly call for justice and human rights in other countries, if you’re not looking at your own and fighting hard in your own country as well. And it’s been pretty severely curtailed in this country over the last few years. So, we’ll be more effective calling for change in Iran if we’re also cleaning up our own house at the same time.
People can go to our website—www.nasrinfilm.com. There is a lot more information about the film, a link to the song, and there’s also a link to a petition from Pen America calling for Nasrin’s immediate release. And there are links to all these other wonderful organizations that are working for human rights and have been supporting Nasrin.
You know, sometimes it seems all abstract. Oh, it’s just the person in the news. But Nasrin is a real person. And there are so many other people just as real as she is, in Iran, and around the world. And they need help. The one thing we’ve really learned is that public pressure, public awareness— it really actually makes a difference. It can put a cloak of security around people until wider change happens. And so we urge people to get involved because it can save a life. It can change a country.
MR: Yeah. I mean, definitely. And we’ve had that experience with the film. We’ve shown it to a lot of different human rights organizations that have been bringing it to their memberships. We brought the film before the European parliament and they’ve issued statements. A lot of wonderful things have happened.