It’s one thing to tell a traumatic story, and another to capture how that trauma impacts a life. What makes Alexandria Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders” so powerful — besides the profound dignity of its subject, Yazidi massacre survivor Nadia Murad — is the way she reveals Murad’s distress at having to take on the role of activist. For every time people tell her how strong she is, we see her discomfort with the straightjacketing mantle of campaigner that she knows she must wear to draw attention to her community’s genocide. By exposing the ways public institutions and the media demand an explicit performance of suffering by human-rights spokespeople, Bombach (who won the U.S. Doc directing prize at Sundance) shows that Murad’s nightmare will never end. It’s this understanding, so rarely addressed or even noticed in most portraits of refugees, that makes Bombach’s film essential viewing.
If the documentary gets the wide distribution it deserves, Murad’s goal of raising awareness of the Yazidi plight will be realized (at least temporarily, since the world’s attention span is only slightly longer than that of a two-year-old). Combine that with the publicity for her newly released memoir, “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State,” and the news cycles and talk shows will have a lot to feed on. Yet as Bombach (“Frame by Frame”) so movingly reveals, all this lionization comes at a vast personal price for a young woman whose dream was to open a beauty salon in her village near the Syrian border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
To the director’s credit, she’s not using her film to provide a primer on the Yazidi people. That’s for someone else to do. Long hounded by zealots who viewed their ancient religion as idolatrous (even “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” erroneously claimed they’re Satan worshippers), the Yazidi were targeted in 2014 by ISIS, who tried to wipe them out. Approximately 700 people were slaughtered in Murad’s small village of Kocho, leaving only 15 men alive; the women were enslaved, and though most have been liberated, their lives remain broken, eked out in refugee camps scattered around Iraq, Greece, and elsewhere.
Murad is one of the lucky ones: her determination to tell what happened has led to her appointment as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, traveling around the world to ensure that her people and their cause are not forgotten. She’s even been taken up by Amal Clooney, a woman who cannily makes use of her beauty and celebrity connections to ensure the human rights cases she champions remain in the spotlight. Yet adopting a cause is nothing like experiencing the inhuman nightmares that created that cause. Murad’s mother and six brothers were killed by ISIS, and that doesn’t include extended family also slaughtered or enslaved as she was. So although she understands she must play the game and respond calmly when journalists ask, “Tell me what that was like, to be treated like property?” the need to put on a public mask each time is lacerating.
It’s also excrutiatingly lonely. Fortunately she has a protector in Murad Ismael, director of the NGO Yazda; with him she can speak her own language, and be with someone who cares about her not just when she’s on a podium. While she’s come to hate that podium, it clearly loves her: she speaks with poise and clarity, understanding how to modulate her emotions. But the moment she’s no longer the center of attention, she visibly droops, her mind and body spent from the exhaustion of once again churning up memories that most people would want to suppress.
Even among Yazidi communities, and inside the refugee camps, she’s told that her strength is what keeps them all going. The burden of responsibility is overwhelming, made even starker when international prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo lays out her future: She needs to hold the Yazidi together and get them through this diaspora, because dividing a small population leads to disintegration. Hearing this makes it all the more maddening when well-meaning people tell her, “I know how hard this is,” yet when they finish their interviews, the news announcers casually segue into a story about artisanal breweries, or the traffic report. Murad has to live with her story, and recount it, day in, day out.
Bombach intersperses observational footage in hotels and safe houses, refugee camps and assembly halls, with black-background studio shots where Murad offers an unblinkered, almost challenging gaze, wordlessly telling the camera that we truly don’t know what she’s been through. “I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress,” she tells us, “an excellent athlete, an excellent student, an excellent makeup artist, an excellent farmer. I didn’t want people to know me as a victim of Daesh terrorism.” Enormous credit goes to Bombach for making a film that recognizes what it means when your dreams for a normal future are vaporized, rather than one that pruriently seeks details of the trauma. The film’s one maddening misstep is at the end, when innocuous music plays on top of Murad’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly.