On 15 September 2014, the then 19-year-old Nadia Murad was captured when Islamic State entered the village of Kocho in Northern Iraq, a region that played home to the Yazidi religious community. She was held a slave, beaten and raped by militants who murdered her relatives but managed to escape and became and activist for the Yazidis’ cause. Alexandria Bombach’s film is a compelling portrait of this incredible woman forced to live in the limelight as she tries to make her voice heard.
The film is structured around Murad’s journey to brief the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2016 on the subject of human trafficking, with only three minutes to distil her and the Yazidis’ horror story. By this time, she was pretty well versed in fitting her narrative into 180 seconds. On Her Shoulders follows Murad as she speaks to well-meaning journalists forcing her to relive her nightmares (Bombach’s film spares us the gory details), meets well-meaning politicians who give her the grand tour of resplendent government buildings (but can do nothing about her plight), and addresses Yazidi refugee camps — hordes of people who rather than return home will be split up across the international community, marking the end of a shared collective identity for a dwindling religious minority. Murad’s thin, wary smile and implacable resolve remain in place throughout.
Murad beautifully evokes her story without a shred of sentimentality.
As a piece of filmmaking, On Her Shoulders is sensitive and empathetic but conventional, mixing talking heads and footage of Murad and her team on their travels. The saving grace is Murad herself. She emerges self-possessed, dignified and direct, beautifully evoking her own story without a shred of sentimentality. Bombach never forgets to drop in human moments — Murad’s dream of opening a hair salon, or her simple joy in riding a shopping trolley — and the film is at its best as Murad writes her speeches on the fly or rehearses her testimony in Starbucks. The film also makes a hero of Murad Ismael, Murad’s translator/advocate, who tirelessly works alongside the young woman to promote the Yazidis’ concerns. She worries that he is giving up the chance of a family. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Frustratingly, given it is only three minutes long, we are denied seeing Murad’s UN address in full. But, time and again, Bombach takes Murad’s lead and keeps the focus on the Yazidis’ plight, not the theatrics (unlike the rest of the world, the film gives Murad’s human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, her due without getting starstruck). The film flips on an axis of hope provided by its hero and despair given the lack of political action in the face of such heart-rending testimony. Although the film is alive to the complexities of the situation, it makes you feel that if Murad can’t spur change, what will?