First to Stand

The Cases and Causes of Irwin Cotler

First to Stand follows Irwin Cotler and his team of young activists at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre as they take on the cases and cause of political prisoners and human rights activists battling against the world’s most repressive regimes.

Cotler began fighting for freedom and justice in law school with the landmark case of Russian refusnik Natan Sharansky, for whom he devised his “mobilization of shame” against the human rights violator — essentially, a PR blitz against a superpower to convince them that holding a political prisoner is bad for their image. The strategy led to Gorbachev releasing Sharansky in 1986.

Tyrants aren’t amused by someone embarrassing their regime in front of the rest of the world — especially Vladimir Putin. Like others who crossed Putin’s path, Cotler was poisoned in Moscow. But the attempt on his life hasn’t dampened his commitment. He is today, one of the world’s most effective activist in the protection of human rights.

First to Stand revolves around the backstory in Russia up to the current human right cases and causes led by Cotler. It opens in the streets of Moscow with protesters chanting to bring Putin down. It is a film of high stakes, emotion and drama, which takes us from the streets to the strategy sessions and corridors of power, as Cotler meets with the heads of state arguing passionately for his client’s release. With unprecedented access, we will follow their families and supporters, including:

Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to ten years and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam” by advocating freedom of speech on his blog. His wife Ensaf is working tirelessly on his behalf.

Bill Browder, Putin’s #1 enemy — the first to speak out against Putin and the creator of the Magnitsky Act, the basis of the current sanctions against Russia, He will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Amal Clooney, international human rights barrister, who is co-heading an international panel to protect media freedom.

Shaparak Shajarizadeh, named one of the most influential women in the world by the BBC for her protests and arrests fighting compulsory hijab in Iran.

Natan Sharansky, Russian refusnik, who is still fighting for human rights in Israel and around the world.

Masih Alinejad, journalist, who the Iranian government recently tried to kidnap in an assassination attempt interceded by the FBI.

We also cover Irwin Cotler’s work with the international team for Nelson Mandela and in remembrance of the genocide in Rwanda.

Although Raif Badawi was released from prison in March 2022, The Saudi regime has instituted a ten-year travel ban, so he cannot leave the country. Irwin and his team have been working behind the scenes to have the ban rescinded. We hope to soon add an epilogue showing Raif’s reunion with his wife Ensaf and their children.

First to Stand is about committed human rights activists who know if they stand up, it won’t be long before others are standing with them.

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Past screenings

  • Montréal — Human Rights Day World Premiere: Cinéma du Musée. With Jess Salomon, Irene Lilienheim Angelico, Abbey Jack Neidik. Q&A with Irwin Cotler, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, Ensaf Haidar. December 10, 2022.
  • Montréal — Extended Run: Cinéma du Musée. December 10–22.
  • Jerusalem — Jerusalem Cinematheque, hosted by the Canadian Embassy. Q&A with Irwin Cotler, Natan Sharansky and Michal Cotler-Wunsh. December 20.
  • Toronto — Hot Docs Cinema. With Payam Akhavan, Irene Lilienheim Angelico, Abbey Jack Neidik. Q&A with Irwin Cotler and Shaparak Shajarizadeh, moderated by Jay Rosenzweig. February 5, 2023.
  • Jerusalem — Second screenings, Jerusalem Cinematheque, hosted by the Canadian Embassy. Q&A with Irwin Cotler, Natan Sharansky and Michal Cotler-Wunsh. February 21.
  • Mannheim, Germany — The Mannheim Arts and Film Festival. October 25.
  • Walnut Creek, CA — East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. February 27.
  • Boca Raton, FL — Boca Jewish Film Festival. February 12–March 26.
  • Tel Aviv — Screenings at Tel Aviv University for the Inauguration of the Irwin Cotler Institute for Democracy, Human Rights and Justice. May 14.
  • Winnipeg — Berney Theatre. May 16.
  • Montreal — Six simultaneous screenings at the Ciné Starz. June 8.
  • Memphis — Temple Israel Memphis. June 14.
  • Monte Carlo — The Golden Nymph Awards. June 16–20.
  • Rochester, NY — Rochester Jewish Film Festival. July 30–August 6.
  • Ra’anana — Q&A with Irwin Cotler and Michal Cotler-Wunsh. September 7.
  • Los Angeles — Wilshire Boulevard Temple. September 25.
  • Brussels — Festival des Libertés. October 13.
  • Washington, DC — The Lantos Foundation, Raoul Wallenberg Centre, Canadian Embassy. October 25.
  • New York City — Museum of Jewish Heritage. Q&A with Irwin Cotler and Bill Browder. October 31.
  • Brooklyn — Irene Lilienheim Angelico and Abbey Jack Neidik. Q&A with Masih Alinejad (anticipated). November 1.

Future screenings

  • London, UK — November. TBA.
  • Ottawa — Screenings in Parliament. With irwin Cotler, Arif Virani, Michael Chong, Elizabeth May, Guy Carron, Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, Irene Lilienheim Angelico, Abbey Jack Neidik, and (anticipated) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. November. TBA.
  • Ottawa — Theatrical Run at the ByTowne Cinema. November. TBA.
  • Chicago — Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. TBA.
  • Tucson — Tucson International Film Festival. January.
  • Boston — TBA.
  • Cancun, Mexico — TBA.
  • Los Angeles — TBA.
  • Montréal — The Jewish General Hospital. April. TBA.
  • Sherbrooke, QC — TBA.
  • Limited Canadian Theatrical Release (anticipated) — McGill University, Concordia University, Université de Montréal, University of Toronto, Vanier College, Dawson College, and more. TBA.