Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary human being. In August 2014, the Yazidis of Northern Iraq were attacked by ISIS, who raped and killed thousands of Yazidis in what amounted to a genocide, turning countless women into sex slaves. Twenty-one-year-old Nadia Murad survived and later escaped the horror and has been on a mission ever since, traveling around the world to share her story in order to save and protect this ethno-religious minority, who have been scattered throughout refugee camps. “What must be done so a woman will not be a victim of war?” she demands. For a year, Bombach followed Nadia and Murad Ismael, executive director of Yazda, a global organization dedicated to supporting the Yazidis and other vulnerable groups, as Nadia met with media and politicians while hoping to be able to address the UN General Assembly. They go to Canada, Germany, Greece, and America, occasionally joined by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Yazda deputy executive director Ahmed Khudida Burjus, and former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, as she makes her case to anyone who will listen.
Nadia is not a born activist; she has taken up the cause because she can’t see any other option. In the process, however, she has become a remarkable speaker and a reluctant hero to her people, but it takes a toll on her. As she tells her story, she must relive over and over again the atrocities she personally experienced and meet with men, women, and children who are suffering terribly and often break down into tears upon just being in her presence. “As a girl, I wish I didn’t have to tell the people this happened to me. I mean, I wish it hadn’t happened to me so I wouldn’t have to talk about it,” she explains. “I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress, as an excellent athlete, as an excellent makeup artist, as an excellent farmer. I didn’t want people to know me as a victim of ISIS terrorism.”
Bombach, who directed, edited, and photographed the film — using a small, handheld Canon EOS 5D Mark III to be as unobtrusive as possible — treats Nadia with a deep respect and sensitivity, being very careful not to exploit her even further, nor does she put her on a pedestal. She focuses her camera on Nadia’s striking face and her expressive eyes, which are filled with a mix of horror and hope, tired beyond their years. Throughout the film, Bombach (Frame by Frame, Common Ground) includes clips of an interview she conducted with Nadia near the end of their time together. Nadia’s long black hair and black top nearly fade into the black background, her face and neckline prominent as she speaks openly and honestly about her mission. Nadia barely ever allows herself to smile, refusing to feel joy when there is still so much work to be done; she will not stop until there is justice and accountability for what is happening to the Yazidis. It’s heartbreaking when she says, “I can’t bear to live this kind of life.” In a rare moment out of the public spotlight, she is in a kitchen cooking, and it is absolutely delightful, a much-needed break from the intense pressure that hovers over her. On Her Shoulders is a deeply affecting, heart-wrenching film that will leave you emotionally exhausted but also energized to take action. “I want women and girls to see themselves as something special,” Nadia — who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize — says, refusing to acknowledge that she herself is special indeed. Winner of numerous festival awards, On Her Shoulders opens October 19 at Village East, with Bombach participating in several Q&As on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.