“On Her Shoulders” is an intimate, empathetic documentary, made with discretion and power, about a 23-year-old woman who less than a month ago burst onto front pages worldwide when she won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
That would be Nadia Murad, a survivor of the 2014 ISIS-led massacre of the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in her northern Iraq homeland, a woman whose story of rape and sexual slavery is beyond horrific.
But unlike most documentaries about heroic individuals, “On Her Shoulders,” two years in the making, does more than show us why and how this woman with a complete lack of interest in fame or personal celebrity became the face of an international movement and a source of visible pride to her fellow Yazidis.
Rather, director Alexandria Bombach, who won a directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for “Shoulders,” is equally interested in the personal price that has to be paid for this level of advocacy, to show what it’s like when global forces forcibly remove you from your normal life the way a tornado wrenched Dorothy from Kansas to Oz.
The world collapsed for Nadia on Aug. 3, 2014 when, as we hear newscasters announce, a catastrophe unfolded around her. ISIS forces overwhelmed her town in the Sinjar region, killing 700 of its 2,000 inhabitants, including her mother and six brothers. A total of 18 extended family members were killed or taken into slavery, as was the then-19-year-old Nadia.
She eventually escaped and was taken to Germany, where psychological treatment was initiated. But, Nadia says, she stopped after one session. It would be too self-involved, too painful, she felt, to focus on herself when thousands of women and children were still in captivity and suffering horrors like her own.
“On Her Shoulders” picks up Nadia’s story nearly two years later, in early summer 2016, when she’s engaged in what has become her life’s work, campaigning nonstop for freedom and justice for those left behind as well as better conditions for those who made it out as refugees.
“The world is silent, mute about us,” she says, and, working and traveling with Murad Ismael, the executive director of Yazda, a Yazidi advocacy organization, that is something she cannot abide.
Even in the film’s opening frames, you can feel the close connection director Bombach, who also served as her own cinematographer and editor, has established with Nadia.
She has used that intimacy in an unobtrusive way, to show us quite vividly the toll Nadia’s path has taken on her.
Among the remarkable things “On Her Shoulders” demonstrates are the gifts of a self-described normal young woman whose hopes and dreams centered on nothing more than opening a beauty salon in her town.
Instead, the catastrophe visited on Nadia created an unexpectedly steely level of determination as well as a natural gift for moving and compelling public speaking.
“On Her Shoulders” shadows Nadia through three different situations, starting with a trip to Canada, where she evangelizes for the Yazidis’ plight in the hope that more of her compatriots will be admitted as refugees.
Part of this work involved submitting — and that really is the word — to an exhausting string of interviews where she has to tell her horrific story again and again to interviewers whose questions can seem obtuse and intrusive.
Next stop for Nadia is Greece, specifically three refugee camps where Yazidi refugees are being housed. She is mobbed as a savior here, and though she clearly enjoys being among her own people, it is difficult for her as well, and Ismael has to remind her that these people “get their strength from you.”
The third part of Nadia’s story takes place in New York, where various appearances at the U.N. are scheduled, including one appointing her as Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
This is yet another side of Nadia’s life, one involving planning, strategizing and networking with concerned individuals (Amal Clooney makes an appearance) who don’t necessarily understand what she has been through. Asked to use the phrase “Imagine yourselves” in a speech, Nadia quickly replies, “They can’t imagine.”
“On Her Shoulders,” as its title indicates, is expert at conveying how heavily the weight of sadness sits on Nadia. When she is off air, her default position is to look shattered and genuinely haunted, an aura Patrick Jonsson’s rich score enhances.
Yet filmmaker Bombach provides glimpses of another young woman, someone with a sense of fun who knows how to laugh. But whenever she does so, Nadia looks guilty and almost furtive, as if frivolity is not permitted. Of all the moments in this remarkable and deeply moving documentary, those are some of the saddest.
‘On Her Shoulders’
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes