The newly released documentary NASRIN on Hulu paints a powerful and often hard-to-watch portrait of an impressive Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights lawyer and political prisoner in Iran.
NASRIN, the documentary directed by Jeff Kaufman and narrated by Oscar® Winner Olivia Colman follows the daily life of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh as she fights for justice in Iran. The secretly-filmed documentary effectively captures the public and personal life of Sotoudeh over multiple years.
June 13, 2021, marked the third year of Sotoudeh’s imprisonment. Millions of people from over 200 nations have called for her release including US President-Elect Joe Biden; journalist Christiane Amanpour; journalist and activist Gloria Steinem; author Margaret Atwood; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
The list of those on her side is long, but Nasrin Sotoudeh remains imprisoned. She faces a 38-year sentence and 148 lashes for her defense of activists and political involvement.
Her list of charges is extensive: Inciting corruption and prostitution, openly committing a sinful act for appearing in public without a hijab, disrupting public order, spreading false news to manipulate public opinion, propaganda against the state and assembly, and collusion against national security.
It’s difficult to enjoy the ins and outs of the film knowing Nasrin Sotoudeh’s current status as a political prisoner, but the film doesn’t start there. It begins years prior and spotlights her myriad victories and setbacks in her efforts to defend political activists from an oppressive regime. Her activism most strongly surrounds the issue of women’s rights, an area where Iran has a complicated history.
Prior to 1979, women were able to vote and enter Parliament and were largely educated. Yet the onset of the Iranian/Islamic Revolution brought political upheaval and the installation of an Islamic republic. Under this rule, women’s rights were severely restricted. Women lost their right to divorce and were barred from many jobs and activities. Polygamy was made legal. The hijab was made compulsory for public spaces.
The stance against compulsory hijab is one of Sotoudeh’s most prominent causes. She’s also fiercely engaged in the defense of activists, minorities, and juveniles on death row. Sotoudeh consistently resists expectations to wear her hijab, even going so far as to do a Dateline interview without it on.
“If you succeed in forcing us to wear this half a meter of cloth, you will be able to do whatever you want with us,” said Sotoudeh. It’s the root of much of her work, the insistence of freedoms for the most oppressed. It’s a throughline of her constant toil in and outside of the courthouse.
Inside the courts, Sotoudeh is a dynamo. Her firm stance on legality and justice makes her a strong presence as she faces outright dismissal and misogyny from the government. It seems Sotoudeh is constantly fighting for what is legal in the face of a government that doesn’t care.
Her impressive legal presence aside, the film still takes care to portray Sotoudeh as more than a martyr and hero. She’s a real person, and the documentary captures the intimacy of her daily life.
In fact, it’s Sotoudeh’s dual status as a mother and a wife, an activist and political prisoner, that creates such striking humanity. It’s understood that she is motivated by more than pain– she is motivated by love.
It’s love for her husband Reza, captured in intimate smiles, and love for her children. It’s love for her people that she so righteously defends, and love for her peers as they savor moments of laughter between the fight for justice.
Even when she’s first arrested in 2010, Sotoudeh did not sacrifice love and laughter. “My interrogator did not realize that happiness lies within an individual’s heart,” said Sotoudeh. She spent more than two years in Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for its treatment of the many political prisoners held there. Former inmates have described being tortured with mock executions, beatings, and psychological tactics.
Nasrin has a seemingly endless resilience during the brutal sentence, banned from seeing her children and on a 50-day hunger strike. Facing such strife, Sotoudeh still creates change– even within the prison.
Women in prison are forced to wear chadors that cover from head to toe, but Sotoudeh simply refused. “It wasn’t legal,” she said, and she fought with prison authorities for months. Eventually, they relented and changed the policy so women could decide whether or not they’d wear the chadors.
She is eventually released and quickly continues her fight for nationwide freedom. Her next–and the most prominent cause is the compulsory hijab. Young women had begun a powerful protest, standing above a crowd and removing their hijabs, waving them around in a stance against the law.
The videos began a movement. Still, many of the young activists were arrested. Sotoudeh took on the task of representing Narges Hosseini. It’s a bittersweet situation, as Sotoudeh fights and succeeds at getting Narges released on bail. Sotoudeh’s joy is palpable, as is her resolve to keep working.
“As long as it is in their hands to decide that the hijab is compulsory…. Our decisions will always rely on them,” said Sotoudeh, “If we decide it will be a permanent freedom.” It’s a powerful sentiment, soon darkened when Sotoudeh is arrested again.
The laundry list of charges against Nasrin is long, and the punishment is cruel. The 38 years and 148 lashes of her sentence sparked a global movement to free her, but the activist is still wrongfully imprisoned three years later.
Yet her trademark resilience and love remain. Sotoudeh said she wants to continue activism from prison.
“Our children should not inherit silence from us,” said Sotoudeh. Surviving COVID-19, heart problems, a hunger strike, and brutal living conditions in prison, Nasrin’s fight for social justice still lives on.
Nasrin is currently available to watch on Hulu.