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.

With unprecedented access, we follow Cotler and his team from the streets to the strategy sessions and corridors of power, as he meets with the heads of state arguing passionately for his client’s release. Cases and contributors include:

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

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.

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. 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 Irwin and his team have been working behind the scenes to have the ban rescinded.

Bill Browder, Putin’s #1 enemy — the first to speak out against Putin and the creator of the Magnitsky Act, the basis of sanctions against Russia.

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

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

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.

“A great film. Absolutely captivating!”

– Duke Eatmon, CBC

“…The captivating, fast-paced movie tracks former Justice Minister Cotler’s battles in defence of people who have been victimised for fighting against repressive regimes… The film, the filmmakers, the responses by Cotler and these courageous women, who all handled questions with modest brilliance, drew several standing ovations.”

– Maurie Aliof, Northern Stars

“…. A suberb documentary.”

– Greer Fay Cashman, The Jerusalem Post

“…In all honesty, I have never been as moved by a film. Epic in scope and ambition, Not only a legacy for Irwin Cotler, but to the hundreds and hundreds of people who stand with him.”

– Michael Schlesinger, Fulbright Scholar

“…Thrilled there was such a good reception to this great work.”

– Amal Clooney, Human Rights Barrister

“Captivating new documentary! First to Stand is the latest from the dynamic Montreal spousal filmmaking team of Irene Angelico and Abbey Neidik.”

– Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette

“An extraordinary new documentary.”

Mike Cohen, Cohen in the City

“With their new film about Irwin Cotler, married Montreal filmmakers make a stand for human rights.”

Brad Wheeler, The Globe and Mail

“Irwin Cotler is one of the greatest heroes of our time. He’s taken on some of the most intractable dictators and saved some of the most unjustly imprisoned hostages. I hope that everyone will watch First to Stand and become familiar with his inspiring commitment to justice.”

– Bill Browder, financier, activist and creator of Magnitsky Sanctions


  • Year: 2022
  • Duration: 57 & 72 mins
  • Production: DLI Productions
  • Director: Irene Angelico & Abbey Jack Neidik
  • Available Versions: ENG
  • Country of production: Canada


  • Festival des Libertés 2023 ( Belgium)

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