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Creators of Documentary ‘Nasrin’ Convinced That World Oppressors Cannot Crush Grassroots Freedom Movements

  • IWB Post
  •  December 30, 2021

A few days back an article popped on my phone screen. The headline read, ‘Muslims barred from Friday prayer sites in India’s Gurugram.’ I stopped scrolling for a few seconds, stared at an image of a gathering of Muslim men in white caps bending down to offer their prayer while at the other end another gathering of Hindu activists raised slogans and played religious songs on the loudspeaker.

“Is this us?” I whispered under my shaking breath. ‘Stop reading the news – a manifesto for a happier calmer and wiser life’, a book by Rolf Dobelli lay nonchalantly on my bookshelf. One day, yes.

But today’s not the day. None of us are alien to the subject of discrimination and human rights violations. An age-old tradition preserved and passed down through generations. A wave that engulfs every nation once in a while as we watch quietly, shifting beneath a watchful gaze before few brave-hearts find the courage to dismiss their fears and embrace love and empathy – and challenge the seemingly powerful with all their might and character.

Nasrin Sotoudeh is one such power-woman. The Outsider Art & Film Festival brought her story to India giving us an opportunity to learn about her.

NASRIN is a documentary film written and directed by Jeff Kaufman and produced by Marcia Ross, filmed in Iran by women and men who risked arrest to make this film. NASRIN is an immersive portrait of one of the world’s most courageous human rights activists and political prisoners, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of Iran’s remarkably resilient women’s rights movement. In the courts and on the streets, Nasrin has long fought for the rights of women, children, LGBT prisoners, religious minorities, journalists and artists, and those facing the death penalty.

Nasrin

We got in touch with Jeff and Marcia to talk about their work, NASRIN, Iran, and the world of documentary filmmaking.

How easy or how difficult was it to work on NASRIN as compared to other films?

Marcia: Well, it was much more difficult from a production standpoint simply because we couldn’t physically be in Iran to film this. Jeff had made several other films on Iran for Amnesty International, and he had also made a film called education on fire profiling the persecution of Baha’is of Iran. So, our physical presence there would’ve probably resulted in our arrest. But what worked to our advantage was gaining access to spaces that we otherwise wouldn’t have with cameras following us around.

Also, Jeff has experience working remotely with filmmakers in Iran, so that helped us; he knew how to get things done when he couldn’t be there. Also, getting the footage out of Iran – that was very difficult. So we didn’t always get the footage in a consequential order, we wouldn’t even know when the next footage would arrive.

Jeff: One major piece of footage had disappeared for months. And, it had essential elements for the film. We did find it, in the end. This is the sort of difficulty that we faced throughout. The other thing was to translate everything from Parsi to English while also keeping alive the spirit of the film – from every pause and to every nuance.

Also, we knew people were going to be at risk for just featuring in the film. We held back the names of those who wished to be anonymous. Even with our film edited and ready to be released, we let Nasrin and her husband know that we would put this on a shelf and never show it to anyone if this puts her at risk. But they always said it was important.

The film was licensed by BBC Persia and Iran Wire.

 Why the interest in Nasrin?

Jeff: After you have made a series of films, things that are inside you show themselves in ways that you aren’t necessarily aware of. All of our films end up profiling people who may not have received the attention they deserve for transforming many many lives. These are people who become the centre of a community. Jazz for Harlem 1930s or women lawyers for Iran pushing for marriage equality or Nasrin or even playwright Terence McNally, these are people who have sparked inspiring change through their life and work. So that is central to my work.

As for Iran, having done so many films about the country, my interest in Iranian people and culture grew stronger. Iran has a great history, great culture, vibrant social life which is often not depicted in the West. So we really wanted to tell the story of this remarkable woman who really is the best of what anybody can be in any country. But also through her, the journey through an Iran that people haven’t seen before.

Marcia: Nasrin is a compelling character. We often feel that if this person’s story isn’t told, the story will be forgotten. It will be changed. I also see how the government is not the people. You see that everywhere. There are all sorts of people in a nation. So there are many like Nasrin fighting against a regime for human rights. So we really wanted to show what we share in all our countries – the common humanity.

One of my heroes is John Lewis who was an American civil rights activist. He realised all of our struggles are related so he became a champion of women’s rights, gay rights. He saw the bridges. Nasrin is so much like that. A Muslim woman from a simple family who came to passionately believe in the bond between all people. So she fought for equality of all religious minorities, ethnic minorities.

And, how do you relate the film to your own reality?

Marcia: It’s been so directly connected to our own challenges back home right now. And I guess the same goes for India where we know the fracture between two major religious groups has become deeper for political purposes over a few years. It’s tragic to see the original visions being sidelined. So I guess NASRIN speaks to the best of what we can be in India and in the United States.

 

I think we all want to believe that our governments dont represent us. But where will an elected government draw its power from then? How does it become so easy for them to trample upon the liberties of people it has vowed to protect? It must have a huge chunk of the population behind it to translate its policy on paper into reality on the streets. 

 Jeff: It’s a fascinating, endless, and complicated issue. Marcia and I talk about it all the time. When people come to power just for the sake of power, they get focused on maintaining their own power. Usually, there are wealthy, privileged people behind them. So there’s a lot at stake to keep them on and pliant. Also, we can say that Iran has become a very corrupt country, both in the military and the government. So has the US. I guess the trick is to make the politically weak believe that the people in power are serving them while they really aren’t. And they spin social issues, religious issues, gathering support while all the while disenfranchising them economically. We can have a whole college course about it!

Marcia: There’s a great movie called ‘I am not your Negro’, and James Baldwin talks about this very subject at the end of the film. What is racism? There is something about people that makes them want to feel better or superior to other people. Feeling better in today’s context often means feeling better than somebody else. In times of economic difficulty, especially with what’s going on right now, the economic disparities, class & religious inequalities consuming countries across the world, the governments have realised that you can play with that. You can make a section feel better by oppressing somebody else.

Jeff: The effort to put down women and build up men’s powerbase makes them feel powerful. But it’s really a way of controlling the men as well. So then you have the men, too who become enslaved by their own powers. So actually the act of freeing women will free everybody. That’s the irony of patriarchy.

Marcia: Human nature is complicated. Nobody wants to lose money or power after acquiring it. I think of Africa which is the most shocking of all places. A country was torn by oppression and horrible discrimination during colonisation. But they left and we have another army of dictators doing the exact same thing!

How did you keep the character of Nasreen real and human, without idolising her?

Jeff: We don’t want to idolise her. She is a real person but we have had so many conversations with Nasrin and Reza, her husband, in such difficult situations. She really is someone who works hard and has her heart and ego in the right place. I think that’s remarkable. She works very hard to keep her place grounded. That’s also something you see in the film.

Marcia: Nasrin is a remarkable woman. There are two qualities that I really wish to emulate. First is being her sense of humour and her ability to have a laugh even in the direst of situations. And her sense of purpose in life.

Is she not afraid?

 Jeff: Afraid is a complicated word. She certainly feels the weight of what her actions mean to her, her family, and her country. There are several kinds of torture. Nasrin, when on a 46-day hunger strike to protest the risk that political prisoners in Iran faced amid the Coronavirus pandemic due to deteriorating health, as punishment was sent to an even worse prison where she got Covid. She was released temporarily on medical conditions, and the order was later abruptly cancelled, and the same day froze all her bank accounts. They brought in her daughter for questioning, her husband has been arrested and has a six-year sentence hanging over him. They do a lot to put pressure on her. She is aware of the consequences. She loves her family but that said, she has a fearlessness about her and a sense of purpose that is really inspiring and that’s why people compare her to Nelson Mandela.

What do the Iranians think of Nasrin?

 Jeff: Well, we can’t speak for 80 million people. But Nasrin is highly respected for all the things that we discussed. So that really puts her in a unique position. I think the more people get to know about her, they get to know about the values and the rights she is fighting for. Not just for her own country but for ours, too.

I read about your documentary ‘The State of Marriage’, and the form of protest really stood out for me. It began with a conversation. Not with the government but neighbors. Laws can protect you but until theres a change from within, there will exist no harmony.

 Jeff: We did a film just at the beginning of Covid in 2020 called ‘40 million’, which again focussed on women’s rights movement in Iran. This movement goes back 100 years. It gets stepped on and revived over and over. There’s a whole civil rights movement in Iran, as well. In almost all totalitarian countries leaders try and crush such movements. But there’s a spirit in Iran for rights and grassroots democracy and representation that’s remarkable.

On most levels, I am a pessimist with regard to history. But I can really bet on the Iranians to move their country in a better direction.

Marcia: At one point, the number of people that are unhappy will increase to such numbers that they will take action. Governments always crackdown on people but at a certain point when people feel they have got nothing to lose is when they come together and change takes place. We hope!

Nasrin

As a woman Marcia, what was your experience working on a film like this? Coming from a position where we enjoy wider liberties, how was it to look at the struggle of women fighting to choose their own wardrobe?

Marcia: Despite all the problems we gave, I have a lot of gratitude for freedom that we have as compared to Iran. We began working on the film in 2016, the year when Trump was elected. And I have been watching all that’s been going on here. I feel that our country is moving in a direction where it is trying to take people’s rights. As a woman making the film, it made me very worried about what’s happening here.

Has the world of documentary-making changed you as people?

 Marcia: Oh yeah! I worked as a casting director for film and television for over 40 years. I have met a lot of people. But the people I met making documentaries have had a huge impact on me personally. All of our films are about people who have done things with their lives that haven’t resulted in great economic rewards but involved a lot of struggle and danger to their lives. These are people who have decided that they want to make a difference; people with great perseverance in face of obstacles ready to change the course of history. And that has been life-changing for me.

As for this particular film, something was different. I never met political prisoners before. So all the Iranians that we crossed paths with, the educators, the artists, the exiled, people who have families but are unable to go back to the country they love for the danger of imprisonment, all of these people have had a huge impact on me personally.

Jeff: I agree with Marcia. Working on films like this opens up doors to how other people live. There’s something fundamentally beautiful about learning how other people live, struggle, believe, raise families and communities. We move forward the best when we tear down barriers and learn from each other. So this part of filmmaking has been miraculous for us.

A recent viewing of the film Sardar Udham left me with a question. Terrorist or revolutionary? Protest or violence? Sometimes there are no right answers. He was hanged until death in a land far away from his motherland, in a foreign country, denied those very rights that he fought for when he was alive. I wonder, how many such ‘revolutionaries’ we will have to lose before we find our answers. Before we find love, embrace empathy and dismiss our own fears.

 

Jeff Kaufman is an American film producer, director, writer, and illustrator. Kaufman produced, wrote, and directed the documentaries Every Act of Life, The State of Marriage, Father Joseph, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, Brush With Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman, and Education Under Fire. He also directed and produced episodes for Unsolved History, a Discovery Channel documentary television series, and the Discovery Channel special WTC 9/11: Stories from the Ruins. His other documentary films include ’40 Million’, which featured Nasrin Sotoudeh and other Iranian women’s rights activists.

 Marcia S. Ross is an American casting director and documentary producer. Marcia Ross’ producing credits include the feature-length documentaries Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, The State Of Marriage, Father Joseph, and The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America. Her most recent film is NASRIN, which follows the life and work of the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, up until the time of her second arrest and imprisonment in Evin Prison in 2018.

During her nearly 40 years as an independent casting director (Holstra/Ross Casting, Marcia Ross Casting) and casting executive for motion pictures and television, she has worked on hundreds of feature films, network series, pilots, movies for television, and mini-series. She served for 16 years as EVP for Casting for the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group and for five years as VP for Casting and Talent Development at Warner Brothers Television. She has introduced such new talent as Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, Chris Pine, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Amy Poehler, Megan Fox and Jennifer Garner.

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