A remarkable new documentary, On Her Shoulders, tells the story of the recently announced Nobel Peace Prize-winner Nadia Murad, the Iraqi Yazidi woman taken prisoner by ISIS in August 2014, beaten, burned with cigarettes and used as a sex slave. Murad escaped, and, in 2015, she relinquished anonymity and overcame her own feelings of shame and fear to tell her story to the media. She hoped to bring worldwide attention to the plight of the Yazidi people and condemn the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. The film details the strength required for, and the perils involved with, speaking out.
Alexandria Bombach, who was named Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, has weaved together a remarkable picture that juxtaposes how Murad tells her own story with how the media chose, and chooses to, report it.
“This is a film that is almost a behind-the-scenes look at advocacy and a bit of a critique on how we’re telling stories as journalists, documentary filmmakers, politicians, diplomats, everyone who is involved,” says Bombach. “How are we dealing with stories of trauma? What are the questions we’re asking? Why are we asking them? I’m really trying to point to the pitfalls of sensationalism.”
The documentary shows how journalists are driven by a search for soundbites, and at one point, Murad voices concern to Bombach about the kinds of questions she’s being asked. Murad is willing to talk about what happened to her, but she wants it to be framed in the context of the genocide against the Yazidi people. In a perhaps pointed move, Bombach doesn’t delve into the details of Murad’s captivity: how long she was captive, how many times she was raped or even how she escaped. “People have good intentions,” says Bombach. “A big part of this film – and this came from following Nadia’s lead – is that I was just trying to point out how our good intentions are not really enough sometimes and just how distant we are from these realities of trauma.”
On Her Shoulders shows politicians taking pictures with Murad and also giving her gifts, but in doing so, Bombach says they miss the biggest point: "They are not really understanding what it is that she is asking for."
Throughout the film, Bombach is sympathetic to Nadia’s plight and the horrors that she went through, but the story she chooses to tell is the one she experienced herself: “The thing that I was trying to convey and was focused on was to really translate that emotion that I was witnessing while I was with her rather than try to evoke the experience that she went through in captivity. I was just focusing on the experiences she had trying to tell her story because that was something I could witness first-hand.”
In one of several heart-breaking moments, Murad talks about how she wished she had become internationally known because she was a great athlete or a farmer and how she sees herself as a victim, unable to escape the psychological scars left by her horrific experience. In private moments, Bombach saw the toll that the campaigning work was taking on Murad and the film shows glimpses of the stress that Murad is under. In her time shooting she saw Murad change. “It just seemed like things were getting worse and worse,” explains Bombach. “Nadia was feeling more and more defeated. But at the same time, she was also coming into her own and really taking charge of the speeches and where she was headed. I think she was always very sharp and aware of what was going on, but it was just kind of a disillusionment that started to happen, of just being kind of fed up with the inaction.”
The project, Bombach says, came to, rather than her seeking it out. The cinematographer and editor had previously made Frame by Frame (2015) with co-director Mo Scarpelli, a film about four Afghan photojournalists working in post-Taliban Afghanistan. On the strength of this feature, Bombach was approached in July 2016 to make a video promo about Murad. "[Production company] Ryot had been given permission to film Nadia and came to me with this idea to make a short video promo, and this turned into making a short documentary," recalls Bombach. But the tenacious director had her own ideas. "When I met Nadia I thought this should be a feature film and I fought for it to be a feature film for a long time and Ryot kept on saying 'no'. So in the editing room, I made the feature film in secret."
When they saw the footage, Ryot relented and Bombach’s picture is now being released in the United States ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December. When Bombach heard the news that Murad had won the Nobel Prize she admits to having slightly mixed emotions.
“Of course I was very, very proud of her and it’s a substantial award. Obviously it’s a lot of money that she’ll be able to donate to the cause, but I wish they would recognise and be more excited about progress for Yazidis as a whole rather than for one person. And I think Nadia would feel that way, too.