The Passionate Pursuit for the Truth


Pursuing the truth is indeed a noble endeavor, one that’s made all the more virtuous when infused with passion. That’s particularly crucial when attempts are made to intentionally obscure it and the stakes are high. So it is for an intrepid counselor defending a falsely accused suspect in the fact-based historical drama, “The Mauritanian” (web site, trailer).

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the government was eager to round up suspects responsible for the event at any cost – and no matter how valid the evidence was against them. The campaign to arrest them was carried out with all deliberate speed, even if the detention and prosecution of said suspects moved at a snail’s pace. Many of the alleged guilty parties were sent to a high-security holding facility at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba, where they were essentially locked up with the keys thrown away. During their stay, they were subjected to repeated extreme interrogation tactics in a relentless attempt to extract information from them – information that often was not forthcoming, largely because the supposed evidence collected against them was frequently questionable at best. Some were held for years without ever being charged, yet there was also no way they were going to be released, either. A government hell-bent on exacting justice was itself now guilty of thwarting it toward suspects who were, in fact, innocent. And the only hope these individuals had was to pursue protracted legal battles against a government that routinely put up roadblocks to prevent the truth from emerging – and from justice being served.

So it was for Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian national who was accused of being the key terrorist recruiter for the 9/11 attacks. Yet, as the film reveals, his only “crime” was having minimal, marginal contact with individuals who knew or may have known some of the principal players in those tragic events. Nevertheless, the government felt that, despite the flimsiness of that “evidence,” it was enough to arrest him and detain him at Guantanamo (a.k.a., “Gitmo”). Once there, he was subjected to all of the injustices and indignities described above, with little hope of ever being released.

Detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) spent years in confinement at the Gitmo holding center in Cuba after false accusations of being a key terrorist recruiter in the 9/11 attacks as seen in “The Mauritanian,” now available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of STX Films.

Circumstances changed, however, when attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) became involved. When she heard about Slahi’s case, she was initially reluctant to take him on as a client, but, the more she looked into the miscarriage of justice that was playing out, she changed her mind, convincing her law firm to pursue his representation as a pro bono case. With the assistance of her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), the duo began their work on his defense. Little did they realize what they were getting into.

At the same time as Hollander and Duncan were preparing their representation, the government started ramping up its prosecution, led by Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a military lawyer charged with getting a conviction. Under orders from his superior, Col. Bill Seidel (Corey Johnson), Couch initially approached his task with great zeal. But, like Hollander and Duncan, at that point, he had no idea what awaited him.

As each team prepared their cases, they came up against various obstacles. For Hollander and Duncan, just meeting with their client was an ordeal that required them to jump through an array of hoops. And, when they requested copies of discovery materials that the government had compiled against Slahi, they met with delays, bureaucratic red tape and other assorted hindrances, including significant redactions of information that often rendered the documents useless.

Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) assumes the defense of a suspect falsely accused of involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in director Kevin Macdonald’s latest, “The Mauritanian.” Photo by Graham Bartholomew, courtesy of STX Films.

But Hollander and Duncan weren’t alone in this. As Couch prepared his prosecution, he often found his hands tied as he attempted to build a case with significant pieces of evidence apparently missing. At one point, he met with his friend Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi), a CIA operative whom he believed had access to the missing information. However, no matter how much Couch pressed Buckland, he was continually rebuffed. This stall tactic made him increasingly skeptical about what he was involved in, a conclusion not unlike the one being drawn by his opposing counsel.

Meanwhile, as all this legal wrangling played out, Slahi continued to languish in Gitmo. As he mused about his future, he reflected on what he had endured up to that point. Through a series of flashbacks, viewers are witness to the atrocities he underwent, both during interrogations and in the intimidation tactics authorities employed to try to get him to talk. And, through it all, still no charges were filed, again because no revelations emerged to substantiate offenses worthy of prosecution.

The longer this process continued, the more apparent it became that the government didn’t have anything on Slahi and that it was intentionally stonewalling both the defense and the prosecution. Was it because authorities didn’t want to admit they made a mistake? Was it an attempt to maintain a façade aimed at making it look like officials were on top of things in their effort to exact justice in the wake of 9/11? Or was it something more sinister, such as a calculated effort at keeping a lid on secrets that the government didn’t want released? Those were the concerns left to be addressed as this story moved toward its conclusion.

Military lawyer Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) leads the prosecution against a suspected 9/11 terrorist recruiter in “The Mauritanian.” Photo by Graham Bartholomew, courtesy of STX Films.

Seeking truth and justice – especially where they’re being intentionally undermined – is arguably one of the most noble pursuits in which we can engage. Such circumstances provide ample fodder for justifiable outrage, particularly when the egregious behavior is sanctioned, condoned and carried out by parties (namely, the U.S. government and its operatives) that claim to adhere to principles to the contrary. And those scenarios are made all the worse when they’re purposely thwarted by obstacles that make getting at the truth that much more difficult.

Those who desire to see such blatant transgressions corrected are obviously the ones best suited to seek their rectification. That’s because they believe – often quite passionately – that these intolerable situations must be changed. And, when they invoke these beliefs, they often succeed, including in righting these wrongs.

One of the qualities that characterizes the beliefs of these strident individuals is that they’re backed by faith. This is the passion that fuels the magnitude of those beliefs, significantly increasing the likelihood of those intentions being fulfilled. This is apparent in the aspirations of both Hollander and Couch; as advocates for their respective parties, they each seek rulings in favor of their particular causes. That comes as no surprise when they’re on opposite sides of the argument. But, when they both begin to suspect something is amiss, it’s impressive to see their combined power, passion and persistence surface. They both draw upon their faith in the notion that justice will prevail, in whatever form it might ultimately take. Such a commitment by both parties is truly inspiring, to say the least.

Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, left), aided by her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, right), sort through boxes of discovery materials to uncover evidence exonerating their client, a suspected 9/11 terrorist recruiter, in the fact-based historical drama, “The Mauritanian.” Photo courtesy of STX Films.

Developing such faith requires overcoming whatever fears we might have that would hold us back. For Hollander, that means being willing to go up against a seemingly powerful force like the U.S. government, an authority that possesses the means to stop her in her tracks and keep her indefinitely spinning her wheels if it so desires. And, ironically, the same is true for Couch, whose career could potentially be ruined by the institution he loyally serves if he starts to ask too many questions or delves into areas of inquiry from which he’s purposely being excluded. However, if they hope to see their goals realized, they must set aside whatever feelings of intimidation they might have, adopting courageous attitudes to carry them forward.

Those perspectives are also driven by a healthy belief in being authentic, abiding by their personal integrity and the principles it embodies. In fact, as champions for the truth, they realistically can’t do otherwise if they want to be able to live with themselves. But, perhaps even more importantly, adhering to such a stance greatly increases the likelihood of realizing their objectives. To believe and act otherwise invites results that are distorted or go unfulfilled. One need only look to the outcomes attained by those who intentionally try to obfuscate matters to see what can happen when an insincere approach is employed.

The attorneys in this story aren’t the only ones whose beliefs reflect these qualities. Slahi does so as well, even if he’s initially discouraged by his chances of clearing his name and obtaining his release. However, once he sees that he has drawn an advocate to his cause, coupled with his fervor for his Islamic faith, he has a powerful mix of beliefs working for him to see his ordeal resolved, despite the efforts to unduly constrain him. The hope he subsequently develops helps him cope with his deplorable circumstances and keeps him focused on attaining the resolution he seeks.

All of the principals in this story thus have an opportunity to live out their destiny, working for the betterment of themselves and those around them. For instance, through their efforts, Hollander, Couch and Slahi have drawn attention to the failings inherent in officialdom’s arbitrary, appalling policies and practices, especially when it comes to the treatment of falsely accused innocents. But perhaps even more important is the attitude that Slahi exhibited in the wake of his incarceration – one rooted in forgiveness, even for those who mistreated him and held him without charge for 14 years, a time during which his most heartfelt wish was to see his beloved mother (Baya Belal), who, regrettably, passed away during his captivity. His outlook toward his captors is an enlightened example we could all stand to follow when it comes to our relations with those who have transgressed against us, an act from which we could all learn a lot.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, right) confers with her client, suspected 9/11 terrorist recruiter Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, left), at the Guantanamo detention center in director Kevin Macdonald’s latest, “The Mauritanian.” Photo courtesy of STX Films.

This meticulously detailed account of Slahi’s fraudulent and unspeakable detention is a powerful indictment of the sloppy practices of a government more concerned with convicting someone than with serving justice and uncovering the truth. Director Kevin Macdonald’s thorough treatment of the subject clearly reflects his scrupulous proficiency as a predominantly documentarian filmmaker, exposing the cruelty of officially sanctioned interrogation atrocities and recognizing the efforts of both government and legal crusaders who fought to bring them to light. However, as earnest as that intent is, and as infuriating as the film’s reprehensible revelations are, “The Mauritanian” is at times a little too “clinical” and a bit overlong, periodically becoming mired in excessive legal wrangling that waters down the emotional impact of the narrative. Some judicious editing and a less conventional approach to the material would have strengthened this offering, making its story and insights more compelling. To its credit, though, the film does indeed drive home its message, and its superb performances by Golden Globe Award nominee Rahim and Golden Globe Award winner Foster are worthy of their accolades. The film is available for online streaming.

No matter how deeply we may feel we’ve been wronged, there’s no excuse for projecting our pain onto others who had no involvement in such despicable behavior. That’s true from both an individual and collective perspective. Indeed, the hurt we as a nation suffered from the 9/11 attacks is incalculable, and the perpetrators indeed deserved to be brought to justice. But seeking such a result at any cost can’t be justified when it falsely drags innocent parties into the fray, even when there may be a temptation to brand them guilty simply by association with no hard evidence of wrongdoing. Such initiatives often take on a life of their own, too, making it difficult to restrain them. But, with healthy measures of faith, passion and commitment to revealing the truth in place, the result may well prove vindicating and, above all, just.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

The Quest for Personal Fulfillment


Waiting for our life to be fulfilling can be a frustrating exercise. We know we have something to say and goals we’d like to accomplish, yet, for whatever reason, things just never seem to materialize. We’re thus likely to sit back in bewilderment, unable to understand why nothing comes together. But, rather than spin our wheels and waste our time in unproductive speculation, we might be better off focusing our introspection on the root cause of the issue – us. Taking stock of our authentic selves and figuring out what it is we were truly meant to do could prove more revealing, as an exasperated middle-aged woman discovers for herself in the insightful new comedy, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (web site, trailer).

Thirty-nine-year-old African-American playwright Radha Blank (Radha Blank) feels unsatisfied. A decade earlier, she had been named a rising star in the New York theater community, becoming one of the city’s distinguished “30 Under 30.” Since then, though, her career has languished; much of her work has gone unproduced, forcing her to take a job teaching playwriting to high school students (and a rather surly and salty crew of pupils at that). Her romantic life is in something of a slump, too, her greatest thrill coming from vicariously listening to her neighbors make love through her bedroom walls. And, to make matters worse, Radha’s mom, an educator and painter, passed away not long ago, a death that weighed heavily on her. So now as she approaches 40 and begins to feel her age, she wonders if she’ll be able to get her life back on track while she still has the chance, hoping in particular to avoid the pitfall of failed potential that befell her talented but underappreciated mother.

Radha is not without her backers, though. First, there are her students, particularly Waldo (Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (TJ Atoms), a pair of lovable, albeit oversexed, goofballs; Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez), a streetwise Latina lesbian who openly professes to have an unrequited crush on her teacher; Elaine (Imani Lewis), a talented diamond in the rough in need of discipline and an attitude adjustment; and Avery (Ashlee Brian), a Don Juan wannabe with a thing for older women, Radha included. Then there’s Archie (Peter Y. Kim), Radha’s longtime friend and agent, a flamboyantly gay, middle-aged Korean go-getter who does everything he can to support her projects, even when his time might be better spent promoting other more promising clients.

Thirty-nine-year-old playwright Radha Blank (Radha Blank) seeks to eliminate a decade-long stall in her career in the hilarious new comedy, “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Jeong Park, courtesy of Netflix.

Radha’s indeed fortunate to have such enthusiastic supporters behind her, if for nothing else than providing much-needed moral support when circumstances go awry. And the need for that moral support comes up often as she seeks to stage her new play, Harlem Ave. She first approaches Forrest (Andre Ward), the eccentric, enigmatic head of a Black theater company who seems more preoccupied with consulting spirits than doing serious work. Moreover, given the shoestring budgets he generally operates with, the prospects don’t look promising, leaving Radha discouraged yet again.

All is not lost, however. Archie invites Radha to a cocktail party with a number of heavy-hitters in the theater community, most notably Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), a colorful, influential, self-important, though often-clueless producer. Archie informs Radha that Whitman is open to new production ideas and that the party may be the perfect opportunity to make a pitch. But, when Radha and Whitman discuss the possibilities, the conversation doesn’t go well (to say the least), leaving her back at square one.

Disheartened, Radha believes that her career as a playwright could be over. It’s time to reinvent herself, and she taps into the anger and frustration she’s been feeling as a springboard. She draws upon those emotions to begin composing rap lyrics, as told from the perspective of a single, plus-sized, economically challenged, “under-serviced” Black woman, and she likes what she comes up with. This could be the start of a whole new career. There’s just one catch: she needs the beats to go with her words. But, thanks to a promising lead, that problem could be solved soon, too.

Theatrical agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim) can always be counted on to help out an old friend and client whose career has been stuck in a rut for a decade in writer-director Radha Blank’s debut feature, “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Photo by Jeong Park, courtesy of Netflix.

Radha pays a visit to the apartment of beats creator “D” (Oswin Benjamin), a perpetually stoned, twenty-something man of few words who’s a virtuoso at what he does best. Radha and D don’t hit it off well at first, but, when she sees what his beats do for her lyrics, she sees their collaboration as a good fit. Likewise, D soon becomes impressed with Radha – and for more than just her lyrics. He’s anxious to help showcase her work, and he quietly looks for an opening with her in other ways, too.

Unfortunately, thanks to a bit too much pre-performance nerve-settling reefer, Radha’s rap premiere at a club night organized by D proves to be a disaster. After the failed effort, she seeks solace in Archie’s comforting arms, asking herself, “What was I thinking?” Archie provides the requisite reassurance, informing her that, despite her ill-fated meeting with Whitman, the producer is willing to consider giving Harlem Ave. a second look. It’s a chance for Radha to leave her rap experiment behind and go back to what she knows best, an opportunity she willingly pursues.

Upon meeting with Whitman, however, Radha learns that he’s looking to implement a number of alterations to make the play more marketable to theater patrons, such as adding a principal White character (Meghan O’Neill) to a production that originally featured only two African-American leads (Stacey Sargeant, William Oliver Watkins). He also makes promises that he’s unable to keep; instead of fulfilling Radha’s request that he hire a Black director (they’re all already working, he claims), he finds a replacement in a Jewish White woman, Julie (Welker White). And, as the compromises continue to creep into the production, Radha grows increasingly disillusioned.

Self-important theatrical producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney, left) listens to a pitch for a new play penned by playwright Radha Blank (Radha Blank, right) in “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Fortunately, Radha has a knight in hip hop armor come to her rescue. When D wonders where she disappeared to after her on-stage meltdown, he comes in search of her. And, when he does, the man of few words uncharacteristically speaks his mind, contending that Radha is selling out for the sake of seeing her play produced. He takes it upon himself to immerse her in the rap community, to help her see a world in which he believes she truly belongs. It doesn’t hurt that he then satisfies some of her other long-simmering needs. Indeed, everything he does works wonders to lift her spirits.

But this leaves Radha with a huge dilemma to resolve. Does she continue to work on the radically altered production of Harlem Ave., especially since it now means having to address some additional disagreeable obligations in exchange for the play’s staging? Or does she pursue a revitalized rap career with D, one whose potential and prospects are unknown? It’s a big decision, and, with her 40th birthday right around the corner, she doesn’t have much time to choose if she’s to stick to the timetable she set for herself. It seems she’s got some heavy thinking to do.

To a great degree, that heavy thinking begins with a fairly simple question – What does Radha want to create for herself? As simple as that may seem, however, it may not be an easy question to answer. It requires peering within, taking a good hard look at our true selves, particularly what we believe about ourselves. And that’s important, because what we believe about ourselves, in turn, is reflected in the reality we experience.

Of course, in making that happen, we must be clear with ourselves about what we truly want. That calls upon us to be authentic with ourselves, to tap into our sense of personal integrity. And clearly this is something Radha struggles with. Is she a playwright who’s ever willing to make compromises to get her productions staged, even if they go against the principles she stands for? Or is she an emerging rapper who speaks her mind through her candid, no-holds-barred lyrics? Only she can decide.

Aspiring rap artist Radha Blank (Radha Blank, left) collaborates with beats creator “D” (Oswin Benjamin, right) to get her career off the ground in “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Photo by Jeong Park, courtesy of Netflix.

However, she’s not without help in making that decision. Those around her have an uncanny knack for pointing the way toward what she should consider and what she should ignore. D, for example, despite his reluctance to speak up, is an ardent supporter, nudging Radha to listen to her heart and encouraging her to follow what she knows deep down inside is the right course – striking out in a new direction with her singular rap style. The same can be said for her students, all of whom think it’s rad that they have a teacher who is so cool that she’s willing to take such a chance. Even the homeless man who has taken up residence across from Radha’s apartment building (Jacob Ming-Trent) is behind her in his own way, routinely offering colorful, unsolicited guidance on what she should do, acting almost as if he were a sort of latter-day one-man Greek chorus.

At the same time, Archie, and, by extension, Whitman, Julie and everyone associated with the Harlem Ave. production, provide their own special form of backhanded guidance. They’re all eminently enthusiastic about the play as Radha grows ever more disillusioned about it. In a sense, through their continued backing of the play, they feed Radha’s feelings and beliefs that she may be on the wrong path. The question is, of course, can she see that? Can she indeed realize what they’re trying to push her to do?

These various supporters are all present to help Radha attain clarity on what decision to make. Opportunities on each front arise, and individuals in each camp are there to help steer their pending realizations into being. These seemingly perfectly coordinated “coincidences” – these synchronicities – are designed to help show Radha the way, to help her deduce which path she should follow, the one that’s ultimately most in line with the qualities of her true, authentic self. However, the key consideration here is, can she recognize these signposts for what they are?

All of this is aimed at helping Radha realize her destiny, her reason for being. Would Radha be of better service to the world by being the figurehead of a production that has been significantly altered with watered down versions of the messages she’s trying to convey? Or would she have greater impact by willingly pursuing a career as a rap artist whose words speak for those who have never given voice to their issues and concerns? Again, there’s a big choice involved here, but, if Radha puts her mind to it, with all of the loving, well-intentioned urging that has come her way, she just might make the decision that best benefits herself and others.

High school playwriting students Waldo (Antonio Ortiz, second from left), Kamal (TJ Atoms, third from left), Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez, center) and Avery (Ashlee Brian, third from right) turn out for a disastrous premiere rap performance by their teacher in “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Photo by Jeong Park, courtesy of Netflix.

Even though the foregoing plot summary and discussion may make this sound like a deep, philosophical treatise, nothing could be further from the truth, despite the presence of these themes in the picture’s narrative. “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a title that’s a play on words on the 2005 release “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” is one of the most consistently funny offerings to have come out in years, serving up brilliant, laugh-out-loud one-liners and hilarious (and I do mean hilarious) situational comedy in rapid-fire succession throughout its two-hour runtime. And, when the story turns thoughtful, the picture knows how to deliver the goods then as well, but it does so without unduly letting them overstay their welcome. Writer-actor-director Radha Blank’s debut semi-autobiographical feature is a real treasure in so many regards that it’s the kind of movie viewers will remember vividly well after the fact. The film presents its material with a refreshing honesty, offering poignant insights about the New York arts community, society at large, being authentic and growing older. Shot mostly in black and white, the film’s gorgeous cinematography beautifully enhances the narrative and shows off the Big Apple in its best light. The narrative becomes admittedly a little stretched out in the second hour, but, with everything else the picture has to offer, who cares? Sensitive viewers are cautioned that the salty language in this one is enough to make a sailor blush, but it only serves to make the laughs even bigger throughout. Blank is off to a tremendous start with this project; let’s hope she keeps it up in future releases. The film is available for streaming online.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” has scored big with critics, and it has earned a modest degree of attention in this year’s awards competitions (though it deserves more than it received). As one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Films of 2020, the picture also captured the organization’s Spotlight Award for Blank’s outstanding achievements with this project. Blank herself has been recognized with a BAFTA Award nomination for best actress, a very deserving honor indeed. In addition, the picture received a nod in the best comedy category of the Critics Choice Awards contest and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best first feature.

Reaching for the stars is certainly a noble ambition, but we need to make sure we’re grasping for the right ones if we ever hope to feel genuinely fulfilled. Certain pursuits may sometimes feel right, but, when we can see that our efforts aren’t bearing any fruit, it may be time to step back and reassess. We might resist such changes at first, probably because we’re unwilling to admit that the time we spent chasing the wrong goals was a mistake. However, such undertakings – no matter how little success they bring us – are rarely a waste of time. They help us better get in touch with what we were meant to do, ventures that are likely to deliver more satisfying rewards. It may take fashioning a different version of ourselves to reach that point, but, when we consider what’s at stake, the effort is worth it. And, with a sound plan and a good measure of commitment, we just might make it by the time we’re 40.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Speaking for Those Who Can’t


We can all use a little help from time to time. There are even times when we can use a lot of it, and, in those instances where we’re up against seemingly impossible odds, such as being under the thumb of despotic authority figures, it’s positively essential. Thankfully, there are champions out there who are willing to rise such occasions, even when it comes to putting their own well-being on the line, as illustrated in the new biographical documentary, “Nasrin” (web site, trailer).

Nasrin Sotoudeh may not be a familiar name to many of us. But, to countless Iranians who have come under attack by the Islamic state’s authoritarian fundamentalist rule, she has been a godsend. As one of the nation’s (indeed, the world’s) most passionate and prominent human rights advocates, Nasrin is an attorney who speaks her mind and fights aggressively for her clients, often confronting a brutal, autocratic government and a capricious, unreliable court system. In her many years of practice, she has fought hard in the defense of women, children, ethnic minorities (such as the Iranian Kurd community), members of the LGBTQ+ community, religious minorities (such as practitioners of the Bahá’í faith), persecuted artists and outspoken political reformers against overblown charges brought by a regime seeking to suppress opposition at any cost, including instances involving blatant illegality, unethical conduct and outright lying. And, for her efforts, she has gained international notoriety but at a cost to herself, including foreign travel bans, restrictions on practicing law, imprisonment and threats of physical torture.

Nasrin has a history of defending those who have had no one to speak for them under such oppressive circumstances. This has included representation of high-profile figures, including activists, journalists and opposition politicians. At the same time, her work has also addressed caring for the needs of the innocent, such as protecting children in custody cases involving parents with known histories of abuse seeking to retain access to their youngsters brought before judges sympathetic to their causes.

Nasrin has been especially active when it comes to women’s rights. Given that more women than men graduate from college in Iran, she believes that they can play an important role in helping to shape the nation’s future but that they must have the freedom to do so to fulfill that role. That includes measures that many in the West may see as simple but that are nevertheless crucially important to the women of Iran.

For example, she has quite aggressively challenged government dictates requiring women to wear hijabs in public, the traditional Muslim veil denoting modesty. It’s a practice that she believes should not be governed by legal sanctions, and it’s one that an increasing number of younger Iranian women have begun to publicly rebel against. She has taken on cases involving clients who have willingly defied the requirement, and Nasrin herself only complies with it when out in public, not when meeting with clients in her office.

On a wider scale, Nasrin was a signatory to the Campaign for One Million Signatures, an initiative aimed at collecting the support of one million women to petition the government for the elimination of laws aimed at discriminating against women. She would later defend many of the women who were arrested for their involvement in the campaign. In a similar vein, Nasrin also stood up in support of those who were arrested in a government crackdown against protestors of Iran’s disputed 2009 election results that brought the brutal regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Clearly, she’s not been one to back down from a fight – and always doing so with a cool, calm and collected head.

Such courage and personal fortitude seem to have always come easily to Nasrin. She has long been involved in a variety of efforts where she has openly spoken her mind, much to the consternation of Iranian officials. This resulted in a raid on her office in 2010 while defending a client accused of security offenses, an incident that led to charges being filed against Nasrin for spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. She was subsequently sentenced to jail time in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, a term that was later reduced and resulted in her early release in 2013.

Always on the go, attorney and human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh (center) passionately fights for the rights and freedoms of her clients, as seen in the new documentary, “Nasrin,” now available on DVD and for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

But that was not the end of the governmental harassment. In 2018, halfway through the filming of this documentary, Nasrin was arrested again, this time on a number of charges, including membership in a human rights organization, threatening national security, and “stoking corruption and prostitution,” accusations that led to conviction and sentencing of 38 years’ prison time and 148 lashes. It’s believed that her efforts to confront the government’s position on the practice of wearing hijabs in public contributed significantly to this campaign against her. Efforts to secure her release for this act of governmental overreach have been instituted, but Nasrin remains imprisoned at this time.

The passion that Nasrin has brought to her work also seems to have come naturally to her in her dealings with others outside the courtroom. That’s perhaps most apparent in her loving home life with her husband, Reza Khandan, and her two children, Mehraveh and Nima. But it can also be seen in meetings with her clients, such as Narges Hosseini, a young woman on trial for her defiance to publicly wear a hijab. In addition, Nasrin is a passionate supporter of the arts, believing it to be a cause that deserves greater support, one that authorities should encourage instead of its relentless campaigns of pointless persecution. When seeing how fervently Nasrin throws herself into these endeavors, it’s easy to see how that passion translates into the zeal for her work.

Those qualities of courage and passion are essential at a time like this in Iran. In a nation where the youth is growing increasingly disenchanted with a government determined to squelch expression and opposition, the population needs advocates who will heroically step forward to represent them and fight for their rights and freedoms. Nasrin is a shining example of this, and she and those like her need to be able to live out their destiny and help those seeking a better future, free of tyranny and repression.

With her husband Reza Khandan (right), attorney and human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh (left) never hesitates to speak her mind, even in public, under the repressive and watchful eye of the Iranian government, as seen in director Jeff Kaufman’s new documentary, “Nasrin.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

When someone seeks assistance with their legal issues, they often call upon individuals who possess the kinds of qualities that Nasrin so freely and naturally exhibits. And those attributes come to her so readily because she’s firmly rooted in the beliefs that drive them. Nasrin’s passion for her convictions is a direct result of the beliefs that underlie it. She understands the need to fight for the rectification of the many wrongs that have been thrust upon the Iranian people, be they legal and/or moral in nature. She’s unwilling to accept the dictates and judgments that have been and continue to be inflicted upon her peers. She also recognizes that circumstances have to change, in large part because young Iranians increasingly won’t stand for it. Fortified by such resolve and backing, it’s easy to forge beliefs and engage in activities to pursue the fulfillment of these objectives.

It’s apparent that many others agree with her, too, including some that may seem to be unlikely supporters. Such is the case with the parents of one of her clients, Narges Hosseini, a young woman arrested for failure to wear a hijab in public. Even though Narges is convinced of the validity of her radically defiant stance, she comes from a family with a more conventional and compliant background. Nevertheless, despite this seeming disconnect, the family supports both Narges for her commitment and Nasrin for her fierce determination to defend their daughter. They know Nasrin believes in what she says and that she will do everything in her power to defend her client and her position.

Nasrin’s passion for her work owes much to her ability to face her fears and live heroically. This is key, for fears often hold us back from proceeding with our plans, and beliefs in it generally contradict (and consequently cancel) anything we attempt to undertake. Through her work, Nasrin has not hesitated to publicly express her views, even in the face of an autocratic government and legal system in full knowledge of what could (and did) happen to her for doing so. That makes her a force to be reckoned with, someone who, in the opposition’s view, must be dealt with harshly if her opinions are to be suppressed, conditions that don’t deter her, despite the consequences.

At home with her family, attorney and human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh (second from right) enjoys the loving support and comfort of her husband, Reza Khandan (second from left), and her children, Nimi (left) and Mehraveh (right), in the new documentary, “Nasrin.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

This passion is also attributable to who she is as a person, as the film so clearly shows, especially in her life outside her professional pursuits. The warmth she shares with her family, her demonstrable concern for her clients and her devotion to the arts – all of which are amply depicted here – give viewers a window into her character. And these qualities translate not only into the approaches she takes to her personal life, but also into her professional life. It’s no wonder that others place so much confidence in her and her abilities; they know she’s committed and will give her all for their cases.

By remaining committed to this stance, Nasrin seeks to be her best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Nasrin’s willingness to put herself on the line for her principles, even in the face of dire consequences, demonstrates her commitment to her causes. She sees it as her destiny, her purpose in life, and, considering what she’s up against, it’s a perilous course, to be sure. But, given what’s at stake, it’s a noble pursuit that she feels compelled to follow, one that, when successful, will benefit many individuals in need of relief and support from their travails.

“Courage under fire” is an expression that could best be used to describe the subject of this superb film. Director Jeff Kaufman’s excellent documentary looks at Nasrin’s heroic life, chronicling the many challenges she has faced and unflinchingly depicting the stalwart defiance she has demonstrated in the face of odds frequently stacked against her. The film candidly and sensitively illustrates the counselor’s family life, her involvement in the arts community, and the heartfelt compassion she genuinely feels for her clients and causes, proof of the authenticity that fuels her actions. It also includes interviews with colleagues and those who have spoken with her over the years, such as journalist Ann Curry, director Jafar Panahi (who featured Nasrin in a cameo in his film “Taxi” (2015)), Iranian activist and human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, and European Parliament member Marietje Schaake. Clandestinely shot by film crews in Iran under the threat of prosecution and narrated by Oscar winner Olivia Colman, “Nasrin” paints a truly remarkable portrait of a truly remarkable individual. The film is available on DVD and online streaming.

Rising up against formidable opponents is, no doubt, a daunting prospect, especially when the chances of success are far from guaranteed. Yet, given what’s at stake, it’s often necessary if change is ever going to come. Fortunately, there are advocates who agree to take on such challenges, to fight for what they know is right. And, even when there is little chance of victory, putting such transgressors under the spotlight of public scrutiny can go a long way toward effecting change. Nasrin Sotoudeh is one such activist, and we should be grateful, both for her and for this film that so compellingly tells her story.

A complete review is available by clicking here. In addition, for more on Nasrin, check out a Mission Unstoppable interview by host Frankie Picasso and yours truly with director Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia Ross, available on video by clicking here or via podcast by clicking here. And, to help support Nasrin, click here.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.