On Her Shoulders
Director: Alexandria Bombach
Runtime: 95 minutes
Nadia Murad Basee Taha is a survivor of the 2014 genocide of the Yazidi people of northern Iraq by ISIL. She was captured, tortured, and raped before she managed to escape first to the Rwanga camp in Iraq and then to Germany as a refugee. She first garnered international attention following a testimony she gave about her and her people’s trials to a Belgian newspaper. Since then, she has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of the Yazidi people and for refugees and victims of sex trafficking worldwide. On Her Shoulders, a sobering documentary from Alexandria Bombach, follows Nadia Murad during the summer of 2016 as she continues her activist work and attempts to become the fist UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human trafficking to the United Nations. (Ms. Murad was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, shared with Denis Mukwege, but that is outside the timeline of this film.)
The title of the film, On Her Shoulders, refers to the burden Ms. Murad carries as the only hope the Yazidi people have of gaining the international attention they need to find an end to their dispersement. That weight sits heavily on her and on the film as well. As the filmmakers follow Ms. Murad into meeting after meeting after meeting in which she answers the same questions over and over and over again and recounts her horrific story ad infinitum, we begin not to share her burden—how could we?—but to feel a bit of its weight. We marvel at Ms. Murad’s strength.
No one who meets with Ms. Murad is unaware of her story, so there is an immediate tension in every encounter she has with well-meaning politicians, activists, and media personalities. What do you say to someone who has experienced something so terrible? Creating mere awareness is clearly not enough. The half-million Yazidi people left in the world still suffer as refugees. Yazidi girls and women are still held captive as sex slaves by ISIL. These advocates want to do something productive, but, at the bureaucratic level, the gears of justice grind slowly. So they meet with Ms. Murad, listen to her story, communicate their sympathy for her and her people, and promise to work for their liberation. It never feels like enough.
In this way, On Her Shoulders is a triumph of empathetic filmmaking. We feel Ms. Murad’s sense of responsibility, her resolve, her frustration, her incredulity at the relative peace and prosperity in the West, and her deep and abiding grief. We feel the respect members of the international community have for Ms. Murad, their eagerness to support her efforts and work justice for her people, and their regret that they can’t promise more. And we feel the thrill of hope when any victory is achieved. Though the victories seem small, they are mighty. It is through the faithful work of people like Ms. Murad and her community of advocates that justice is accomplished in time.
On Her Shoulders is a testament then to a perseverance born out of immense suffering. Nadia Murad is a person of remarkable character. She has been through much more than most, and that has instilled in her an ability to endure the burden of advocacy for her people. She knows liberation is possible. She has experienced it. And she will hold onto hope until all her people are free.
Written by Elijah Davidson