First to Stand

The Cases and Causes of Irwin Cotler

Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political view, that place must — at that moment — become the centre of the universe.”

— Elie Wiesel

Anyone with care and courage can change history.

As the world reeled from the horror of the concentration camps, people realized there was an urgent need to protect individuals from the abuses of governments. What resulted was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlined thirty basic rights to which everyone is entitled. Today, we are witnessing a global threat to these rights as many world leaders openly seek and hold on to power with appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and imprisonment of those who challenge their regimes.

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.

Film information
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written and directed by
Irene Lilienheim Angelico
Abbey Jack Neidik

produced by
Abbey Jack Neidik
Irene Lilienheim Angelico

executive producers
Paul Cadieux
Michael Levine

executive producer, TVO
Jane Jankovic

independent production officer, TVO
Linda Fong

Abbey Jack Neidik

Toben Neidik

edited by
Howard Goldberg
Martin Nault
Irene Lilienheim Angelico
Abbey Jack Neidik

original music
Philippe Dionne

Irene Lilienheim Angelico

archive producer
Terri Foxman

additional archive research
Holly Dressel

DLI Productions
Productions St-Antoine

sound editing
Martin Cadieux-Rouillard

Gordon Neil Allen

colour correction and online editing
Philippe Carbonneau

Frédéric Bernard

Louis-Gabriel Pothier

quality control and DCP supervisor
Isabelle Stephen

closed captioning
Anne-Émanuelle Romanelli

technical director
Simon Legault Beaudoin

post-production supervisor
Isabelle Bouchard

technical support
Patrick Clune

Sassonique Productions

graffiti artist
Toben Neidik

American Israel Public Affairs Committee
American Jewish Historical Society
Amnesty International
Amnesty International Norway
AP Archive
Bald and Bankrupt
BBC News
BStU (Stasi)
CBC Archive Sales
CBC News
Canadian Press Images
Centre de Ressources des Entreprises et les droits de l’Homme
City Beautiful
Critical Past
CTV News/Bell Media Inc
Deutsche Welle (DW)
The Diplomat
Dramatic Videos
Ethnomusicology Explained!
Euro News
ExMuslim Rights
F.I.L.M. Archives
Jamison Firestone
Kylie Flavell
Footage Berlin – rbb media
Footage Farm
Freedom House
Photo © by Alexander Frenkel
Getty Images
Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ‘79 series), March 1979, Tehran
The Guardian
Ensaf Haidar, personal collection
House of Commons, Canada
Human Rights Network
Idea City, MZTV Production & Distribution
International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR)
IStock by Getty Images
Robert H. Jackson Center
Jewish Agency for Israel
Howard Kay, CJC photo collection, Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives
Kostack Studio
Montreal Gazette
My Stealthy Freedom
National Archives and Records Service of South Africa
Nelson Mandela Foundation, photographer unknown
National Post
Luke Mogelson, The New Yorker
Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project
Oslo Freedom Forum
Ottawa Citizen
Gerald Praschl
Picture Alliance
Shaparak Shajarizadeh, personal collection
© Alix Kates Shulman, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Vancouver Sun
Vice News
Wall Street Journal
WPA Film Library

additional music
Stand Up
written and performed by Isobel Cameron
composed by Philippe Dionnne
additional violin Kiarra Saito-Beckman
additional cello Matthew Fields
assistant recording engineer Santiago Garcia-Quevas

I Shall Be Released
performance by Joan Baez
written and composed by Bob Dylan
published by Dwarf Music

performed by Pharrell Williams
written and composed by Vincent Brown, Anthony Criss, Keir Gist
and Pharrell Williams
published by EMI Pop Music Publishing, More Water from Nazareth, Wb Music Corp. and Naughty Music
courtesy of Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment (Canada)


music copyright clearance
Josée-Anne Tremblay, laNégo

Gerry Vininsky
Weisbord, Del Gaudio, Iacono

production accountant
George Highfield
Marco Vitullo

legal services
Remy Khouzam
Lussier & Khouzam Entertainment

member of Front Row Insurance Brokers

travel services
Always Travel

the producers wish to thank
Montreal Centre for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University
Jewish Agency of Israel
Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Canadian Parliament Buildings
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim
Hermitage Capital Management
European Union
United States Capitol Complex
International Bar Association
Crowne Plaza
Tel Aviv University
Montreal Science Centre
Maurie Alioff • Luc Côté • Barbara Falk • Jen Herszman Caprau • Felix von Geyer • Randall Kempf • Greg Klymkiw • Terre Nash • Jan Rofekamp • Patricia Scarlett • Shelley Tepperman

and a very special thanks to all our participants
Irwin Cotler
Anatoly Sharansky
Shaparak Shajarizadeh
Ensaf Haidar
Bill Browder
Amal Clooney
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Dikgang Moseneke
James P. McGovern
Masih Alinejad
Romeo Dallaire
Ester Mujawayo
Brandon Silver
Judith Abitan
Nirushaa Senthilnathan
Yonah Diamond
Jeremy Assaly
Zoe Gladstone
Barbad and Alireza Shajarizadeh
Avital Sharansky
Raif Badawi
Miriyam, Najwa, and Terad Badawi
High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom
Peter Kent
Garnett Genuis
Guy Caron
Ketty Niviyabandi
Yves Boivert
Christopher Hernandez-Roy
Kyle Matthews
Payam Akhavan
the Libérez Raif Demonstrators in Sherbrooke, Quebec
the Cotler family – Ariela, Michal, Gila, Tanya, and Jonathan
Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

produced with the participation of
Canada Media Fund
Quebec Credit Impot
Canada Tax Credit

produced in association with

TVO Media Education
VP programming and content
John Ferri

for Michael Lilienheim

a production by

DLI Productions

All Rights Reserved
© 2022 DLI Productions Inc.

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