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The Independent Critic

Nadia Murad
Alexandria Bombach
96 Mins.

 "On Her Shoulders" is One of 2018's Most Essential Docs 
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There is a delicateness to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist and former ISIS captive telling her story, and reliving her story, time and time and time again not because she wants to but because it is necessary. 

Nadia was a 19-year-old student living in the village of Kojo in northern Iraq's Sinjar when the familiar black-clad Islamic State fighters arrived and rounded up the Yazidi community before killing 600 of them and taking the younger women, including Nadia, into slavery. 

It was August 2014. During 2014, Murad was one of approximately 6,700 Yazidi women taken prisoner by Islamic State. Held as a slave in the city of Mosul, Murad, who had already experienced the killing of six of her brothers and stepbrothers, was beaten, burned with cigarettes, and raped when trying to escape. Murad was held until one day in February 2015 when her captor left a door unlocked and Murad actually was able to escape, a neighboring family helping to smuggle her outside of Islamic State held territory into a refugee camp in northern Iraq. Later in 2015, Nadia began telling her story by speaking to reporters at a Belgian daily newspaper and becoming one of 1,000 women and children accepted into a German refugee program. 

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, On Her Shoulders doesn't ignore Nadia's immensely traumatic experiences, though neither does it dwell among them nor exploit them for the benefit of dramatic cinema. Instead, On Her Shoulders examines the building up of Nadia's activism, supported by Yazda, a global advocacy organization for Yazidis, and the almost unfathomable personal and emotional sacrifices the young woman has made on her way to becoming one of the planet's most respected voices against human trafficking. 

Nominated by the Iraqi government for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, that same year Nadia became the United Nations' first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, a role she continues to hold on behalf of the organization. 

On Her Shoulders is, at least in some ways, an appropriately distant film, an approach that Bombach seems to take in recognition that the story itself is so remarkably intimate and so remarkably painful that to draw us in any closer would be, I'd dare say, to inflict pain upon the audience and to subsequently squelch the impact of Nadia's message. It is impossible, or at least it was for me, to watch On Her Shoulders without shedding a tear or two or three or maybe even dozens. The act of watching Nadia, kept busy and constantly kept in preparation for her appearances, is to watch a young woman who longs for normalcy but now knows that normalcy is not, at least for this time in her life, hers to experience. 

We watch Nadia as Nadia's story, as intimate as it is, becomes co-opted by her allies in an effort to bring hope to others like Nadia. We watch as she gains the attention of Amal Clooney, who decides to work alongside her in an effort to hold the Islamic State accountable for their actions. 

We watch. We watch this young woman, seemingly so frail and transparent and delicate yet whose strength simply cannot be questioned and whose willingness to serve seems to know no limits. 

She wants limits, but she simply knows she cannot have them. Not now. 

The building of Nadia from victim to survivor to thriver is mesmerizing to watch, painful yet inspiring. Along with the organizing of her message, along the way Nadia's voice gains in clarity and conviction. Women two and three times her age gain power through her strength, they discover hope because she refuses to relinquish that light. From the staging of awkward media appearances, at times avoidant and other times jarring in their invasiveness, to out of the spotlight diplomacy, On Her Shoulders is neither a deep exploration of the issues at hand nor a true bio-pic of Nadia. Instead, On Her Shoulders is a glimpse inside the resilience of a young woman who chooses at great personal cost to serve as a guiding light for those still held captive and for the healing of those who search for ways to survive traumatic experiences that nearly defy explanation. 

Bombach, who co-directed Frame by Frame, has a remarkable sense of appropriateness in terms of boundaries, often times allowing the camera to simply linger on Nadia's face as she rides in a car or waits to speak or even simply tries to sleep for a few moments as she travels from city to city. The scenes where Nadia is called into an unreasonable level of vulnerability are aching to watch - you can't help but want to scream at the reporter "Stop it!," because you know that Nadia will not and she will continue to do whatever she has to do because she knows she has to do it. 

On Her Shoulders is at its most emotionally impactful when Bombach simply plays observer to everything that's unfolding, Patrick Jonsson's original score occasionally amplifying a story that needs no amplification. The film's simplest moments are its most remarkable, yet what's truly remarkable here is that Bombach has managed to tell this story with such remarkable naturalness and honesty without ever really crossing that line and exploiting it or, even worse, exploiting Nadia. 

Bombach picked up the documentary directing prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, while the film also picked up SXSW's Chicken & Egg Award. On Her Shoulders had a slew of other festival successes, as well, and has been picked up by Oscilloscope Films for a post-festival run arthouse release. 

For more information on On Her Shoulders, you can visit the Oscilloscope website. You can also find out more about Nadia Murad by picking up a copy of her 2017 book Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. 

On Her Shoulders is screening in competition as a finalist at the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival. Just about a week before the festival, it has been announced that Murad has been named the co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. The film will screen at the following times:

  • Oct. 14th @ 7:30pm at DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
  • Oct. 18th @ 5:15pm at DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
  • Oct. 19th @ 7:45pm at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
  • Oct. 20th @ 10:30am at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Oct. 21st @ 4pm at AMC Castleton Square 14 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic