Imagine something terrible that happened to you. It is something you want to keep private, right? You maybe tell your spouse, close friends, or a therapist about it. Now imagine that you have to tell everyone your terrible story, over and over again, because lives depend on it. On Her Shoulders, the remarkable new documentary about Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, is about a young woman in exactly that position. Director Alexandria Bombach does tell Murad’s story, but the film is about a lot more than that. It is a character study, with a focus on survivor’s guilt, and it even has time to critique the moral ineptitude of Western civilization. This is the rare, uncanny film that genuinely puts you in the shoes of its subject.
For a long time, Nadia was an anonymous villager living in northern Iraq. She is Yazidi, a distinct ethnic and religious minority with about half a million members worldwide. But then ISIS came into her village, kidnapped her, and forced her into sex slavery. She managed to escape, and now serves as a representative for all the Yazidi people she left behind. Bombach films Nadia telling her story in a variety of ways: there is a formal interview where she looks directly into the camera. Most of the time, however, the film takes a cinema verite approach, following Nadia as she becomes a reluctant ambassador. She speaks before the UN, she visits Canadian parliament, and she is a central figure in rallies throughout Europe. What interests Bombach is not what Nadia says, exactly, but the small moments in between.
While watching this film, I was reminded of sad, difficult days where I had a heightened sense of awareness. People would speak to me – usually a mix of platitudes or awkward, bad jokes – and I had to grin or smile right through it. That is not to say that my suffering comes anywhere near Nadia’s, but her feelings of quiet frustration are instantly relatable. There is a strange scene where a Canadian MP tells Nadia how she would like to adopt her: her English is not very good, so she does not react right away, and yet her demure response heightens the anger and helplessness she must feel underneath. The film suggests that Nadia’s strategy of raising awareness may not work, since the leaders who listen do not intend to do anything. They only want the appearance of compassion, and their failure only gets more damning as the film continues.
There are no easy answers in On Her Shoulders. The Yazidi people start trickling into Europe, but they are keenly aware of the loved ones they left behind, who were imprisoned, killed, or worse. One leader suggests that Europe – in their attempt to relocate Yazidi across several countries – only prolongs their genocide. What keeps this film from being too brutal or depressing is Bombach’s “fly on the wall” access to the world of international diplomacy. I suspect many of the people in this film, hopefully not Nadia, would think they’re being treated unfairly. Maybe they are too selfish to realize that it is Nadia who gets the genuinely unfair treatment. There are many, many scenes where the responsibility and grief is too much for her, so she bursts into tears. Despite all that, On Her Shoulders is never melodramatic or maudlin. Nadia’s tears are cathartic, a chance for her to connect back to her homeland.
There is a sad, borderline creepy subtext to all the attention Nadia gets. She captures the imagination of the West because she is a poised, conventionally attractive young woman. If she were an old man, for example, everyone would be less interested in her story. As if to underscore this point, Amal Clooney takes on Nadia’s case. Only with the help of Clooney – a strikingly attractive woman who comes with residual celebrity – can Nadia make moves and progress that her other handlers never could. What is happening to the Yazidi people is an outrage, and international community’s slowness to act is a stain on their record. It is a sick, grim irony that in our current landscape, what gets the ball rolling toward peace and justice is not moral courage. It is celebrity, and someone’s physical appearance. Nadia will play that game, but this film makes it abundantly clear what she feels about it all.