Following 2018 Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist and trafficking survivor Nadia Murad, “On Her Shoulders” is equally upsetting and informative.
On Her Shoulders opens and closes with a recurring image that haunts the film and its subject. A hoard of men with cameras follows Nadia Murad Basee Taha, taking selfies and asking her questions and crowding around her. This image shifts throughout the movie, with the cameras sometimes belonging to women in Nadia’s life, sometimes belonging to the news media, and occasionally even the documentarian’s camera crew getting in her way. Nadia is constantly on display, always acting a part for the audience that she has created for herself. In some ways, she has remained as objectified as she was less than five years ago when her story begins.
In 2014, Nadia Murad was kidnapped from her hometown and kept as a sexual prisoner by the Islamic State, one in a series of hate crimes that ISIS performed in their genocide against Yazidi people. After three months she managed to escape to Germany, and ever since she has been one of the most important people in bringing to light the crimes of ISIS within Iraq and against the Yazidi people. On Her Shoulders primarily follows Murad as she gives three speeches before various bodies at the United Nations between 2015 and 2016, working with fellow Yazidi Murad Ismael (the founder of the human rights NGO “Yadza”), UN ambassador Simone Monasebian and human rights attorney Amal Clooney to bring attention to a genocide that had otherwise gone undiscussed.
As the film follows Nadia, however, the hypocrisy of various members of the media and political sectors is revealed. A section of the film follows Nadia as she works with the Canadian press and government to bring attention to the Yazidi genocide. You can see how much performance Murad is forced into, from a radio interview that asks incredibly heartbreaking and offensive questions to a Canadian Parliament that is concerned with photo ops more than fixing things to even just the monotony of shooting B-Roll for a news program. With Ismael as her translator, Nadia is forced to give soundbites about her personal life to countless people who don’t help her. Ismael does his best to protect her at times by not translating the truly stupid things people would say in English, but even that isn’t enough to keep Murad from being at the center of a media circus.
Nadia does have moments of happiness and enjoyment. In malls, she is just another woman, no one realizing they are passing a person who would soon win a Nobel Prize. With Ismael and other Yazidi people in Canada and Greece, she can let down her defenses sometimes, enjoying a chance to cook or do her hair. Simple things that were stolen from her when she was abducted by ISIS. As much as politicians and helpers attempt to call Nadia family to them, it is with the Yazidi people that Nadia can embrace her own culture. Only there can she be herself.
Director Alexandria Bombach does a wonderful job of following a twenty-something woman who has the responsibility of an entire people resting on her, and Murad is a fascinating subject. Having a biographic documentary about a person like her is difficult, as she never allows the opportunity to be “herself” on screen. Part of that is because there is no true “Nadia Murad” left. Instead, Bombach crafts a very strong documentary about a woman with immense responsibility, and the culture that she and upsetting few others are fighting to keep alive.
On Her Shoulders is in theaters now, and is screening with DOC NYC. We attended a special screening at The Crosby Hotel hosted by Mariska Hargitay. Director Alexandria Bombach and producer Hayley Pappas were also in attendance.