Shirin Ebadi: Until We Are Free (2022) film review

Telling the story of a heroic human rights lawyer who defends women and children against the brutalities of the Iranian regime, this is Dawn Gifford Engle’s documentary, Shirin Ebadi: Until We Are Free.

As I write this review it has been exactly seven weeks since a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, was detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating its strictly enforced dress code. Three days later she was dead, having fallen into a coma while in custody. The morality police or Guidance Patrol who routinely detain women in Iran for not wearing hijabs, or wearing them incorrectly, claim Amini died of a heart attack despite having no history of heart disease. Her family vehemently disagrees with that account, with UN reports suggesting she was severely beaten. Amini’s death has caused a public outcry across the world with women in Iran taking to the streets and cutting their hair to bravely challenge the country’s strict morality laws and risk imprisonment. Thousands of women everywhere have shown their support by cutting off their own hair with protests taking place in many different countries.

When director Dawn Gifford Engle started making her documentary Shirin Ebadi: When We Are Free she could never have imagined just how perfect her timing would be nor could she have foreseen that on its release there would be a potential uprising in Iran and a genuine chance that change may be coming. Shirin Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who has spent her life defending women and children from the brutal Iranian regime. The first Muslim woman to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Ebadi has been harassed, attacked, and spied on by the Iranian government, leading to the breakdown of her marriage and the loss of her home – costing her any chance of living a normal life.

Throughout these setbacks, the fearless lawyer has never given up on her mission and this documentary tells the story of her life and career. The recent protests in Iran make an interesting footnote to the film with Engle referencing them towards the end of the 80-minute run time, but before that, the documentary takes the form of a biography. Engle provides us with different visual cues that keep us engaged in the story; we are shown photographs, statistics maps, and graphics while learning about Ebadi’s past and her country’s history. The most memorable segments of the film are the animated sections that are crudely yet colourfully created using 2d cartoons. These scenes pop up regularly and help to describe Ebadi’s time growing up, her childhood, her relationship with her family, how her career developed, and what set her on the road of fighting for equality.

We are also taken all over Europe during the documentary’s interesting section on the history of Iran. We visit the country when it was still known as Persia and learn about the Persian oil fields run by the British, and how the huge conglomerate BP was born there. Engle also gives us information on how Britain, along with the USA, had a massive influence on Iran’s economy, and more importantly, how both countries led to Iran becoming more unstable. This is highlighted during the well-known-yet crucial story about how, when a new government was elected and wanted to renationalise Iran’s oil, the UK and US realising that they would lose control of the oil fields worked together to organise a coup to overthrow the government, and put their own puppets in place. Fascinatingly you can trace back the destabilising of the middle east region to this moment.

Amongst all of the politics and history, we do of course learn more about Shirin Ebadi; we hear from the woman herself, who Engle films in a talking heads style. Elizabeth Holloway cleverly edits in footage and film of Ebadi’s work to match her words and, together under Engle’s slick direction, they brilliantly manage to tell a fully fleshed-out story. The music by Cyril Moran is also helpful in providing Ebadi’s story with the dramatic sense of royalty it fully deserves.

Shirin Ebadi: Until We Are Free gives us a great beginning, a fascinating middle, and with everything that is currently going on in Iran, an ending that is yet to be written. If things in the Middle East continue in the direction they are going then director Dawn Gifford Engle will not just end up with one of the greatest endings in film history, but also, one of the greatest endings in world history.