'On Her Shoulders': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A compelling look at the toll activism takes.

Alexandria Bombach's doc follows Nadia Murad's worldwide campaign for assistance to Yazidi refugees.

Less a portrait of accidental activist Nadia Murad than a sensitive witnessing of the way she has endured life in the public eye, Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders is passionately attentive to the plight of the Yazidis while making broader observations about the call to public service. The subject is a grueling one, full of murder and rape and pleas for the world's attention, and is most likely to find viewers on small screens. But the film is carried by Murad's face: composed more often than seems possible, opaque to the weariness and harsher emotions that may stir behind it, an effective tool for forcing the world to confront what she believes it has done too little to stop.

The Islamic State's attempt to wipe the Yazidis from the face of the earth is, of course, hardly the only genocide or mass slaughter that more fortunate nations have been slow to address. (As one speaker acknowledges here, Yazidis represent a small fraction of the 60 million or so refugees and displaced people in the world.) And an American watching this film at this moment in time may well feel so powerless in the face of his or her own national nightmare that reacting to one on the globe's other side seems moot.

As a consequence, we respond most readily to those stories that focus our attention on specific images of suffering worse than our own: a child's drowned body on the shore; a generation of Lost Boys in Sudan; or Murad, who describes not just her own rape and slavery, but that of girls who were even younger when they were stolen from their families in the small Iraqi town Sinjar. The film offers little background about how she found her role as the face of the Yazidis after being rescued from captivity, but her fitness for the job is obvious: She is beautiful, dignified and direct; she is able to convey deep suffering without mawkishness.

We watch as a string of interviewers in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere prompt Murad to relive the most painful experiences of her life. If the film's editing can make this seem like a sadistic ritual, Bombach clearly sees that the individual interrogators mean well. The same is true of the public officials who bond with Murad when she comes to testify before government bodies: They give her tchotchkes and offer her tours, which Murad accepts with a thin smile. What she wants is their governments' action against the Islamic State.

Murad Ismael, who helped found Yazda, a nonprofit advocating for the Yazidis, is Murad's ever-present translator in these encounters. He is protective of her, and she is humbled by his sacrifice: At his age, she tells us, he has every right to say, "I want to leave this and start a family." But both yearn for their people to be able to go back home and live in peace, so they stay on the road.

The film is loosely structured around Yazda's attempt to get Murad a chance to address the UN General Assembly, an effort that gets a publicity boost when human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (wife of George) takes up her case. But the most involving narrative here takes place far from the UN, when Murad and Yazda's leaders tour refugee camps in Greece with Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor for the International Criminal Court. As they wait, wanting to go home but willing to be resettled, the refugees seem most likely to be split up among countries who are unwilling to take them all together. Arguing that this may well mean the end of collective identity for an endangered religious minority, Moreno Ocampo is not shy about accusing the governments Murad courts so patiently: "Europe," he says, "is finishing the genocide started by ISIS."



Production company: RYOT Films
Director-Editor-Director of photography: Alexandria Bombach
Producers: Hayley Pappas, Brock Williams
Executive producers: Bryn Mooser, Matt Ippolito, Marie Therese Guirgis, Adam Bardach, Alison Klayman
Composer: Patrick Jonsson
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Rena Ronson/Nick Shumaker, UTA

In English and Kurdish/Arabic
94 minutes