On her shoulders

Dir/ed/cine: Alexandria Bombach. US. 2018. 94mins

Tears flow in On Her Shoulders, a powerfully affecting portrait of activist (and recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Nadia Murad, who has helped bring to the world’s attention the horrors of the Yazidi genocide in Iraq. Director Alexandria Bombach doesn’t settle for simple biography, instead weaving through the film a deft, sobering commentary about the limitations of political action and the tendency of mass media to unintentionally rob advocates of their voices, reducing them to mere symbols. The result is that rare documentary that works equally effectively on the head and the heart, only making Murad’s heroism more remarkable in the process.

Bombach brings a hopeful but clear-eyed perspective to the material

Premiering at Sundance, where Bombach won the directing prize for US documentaries, this Oscilloscope release begins its US rollout on October 19, with Murad’s Nobel Prize honour - as well as glowing reviews - lifting the film’s visibility. Further awards are likely as the film starts to travel internationally on a commercial basis, following an extensive festival platform.

On Her Shoulders travels with Murad in 2016 as she visits Canada, America, Greece and Germany, telling her harrowing story of escaping Northern Iraq, where members of the Yazidi community have been raped and killed by ISIS militants starting in 2014. This young woman meets with government officials, journalists and the United Nations, trying to raise awareness for this genocide while simultaneously processing the terrible trauma she experienced in her homeland.

Bombach (Frame By Frame) makes clear her intentions from her film’s arresting opening shot, which finds the diminutive Murad enveloped by photographers and callous selfie-seekers while walking down the street. Cannily, On Her Shoulders is structured almost like a typical rock documentary, in which a popular band ventures from event to event, constantly under the watchful glare of the media and their besotted fans. That ironic framework masterfully accentuates Bombach’s dispiriting observations about how feverish and distorting our society’s obsession with celebrity has become — even when that “celebrity” is famous because of the atrocities she has endured.

Speaking out on behalf of herself and millions of other refugees, Murad uses her fame to decry the genocide, and On Her Shoulders measures her burden as a spokesperson — not just because of the weight of that responsibility, but also because of the insatiable demands put on her during her wide range of public appearances. Asked to repeat her wrenching tale by each new reporter, Murad recognises that she can personalise such inexplicable horrors, hopefully encouraging the nations of the world to take action. But On Her Shoulders shows how draining that task is for Murad and how her “stardom” can be co-opted by groups who are more interested in being seen as aligned with what she represents rather than in actually helping her people.

And yet Bombach’s film isn’t cynical about people’s motivations. Instead, On Her Shoulders is critical of the ways that the desire to do good gets trampled by familiar, intractable obstacles — government bureaucracy, sensation-driven news outlets, ineffectual politicians — even if individuals within those milieus care deeply about Murad’s cause. Bombach brings a hopeful but clear-eyed perspective to the material, sticking close to this young woman as she fights to maintain some sense of normalcy amidst her odd, unexpected celebrity.

As a film subject, Murad proves enormously appealing and compelling. Although she grows more media savvy as she goes along, we never forget that this is simply too much to ask of anyone, particularly considering that she was raped and witnessed the murder of family members. Murad is resilient, despite the understandable grief that comes pouring out of her on occasion.

In these instances, she leans on Murad Ismael, the executive director of the Yazidi rights organization Yazda, who is her right-hand man, close confidante and interpreter. Bombach’s unobtrusive camera captures poignantly unguarded moments between them, his big-brother warmth serving as her strength when she feels overwhelmed. The media may simplify a complex, mourning figure like Nadia Murad, but On Her Shoulders restores her humanity, the ache of her sorrow, and the fiery urgency of her mission.

Production company: RYOT Films

International sales: UTA, Shumaker_N@unitedtalent.com and Ronson_R@unitedtalent.com

Producers: Hayley Pappas, Brock Williams

Editing: Alexandria Bombach

Cinematography: Alexandria Bombach

Music: Patrick Jonsson