“I know this isn’t easy, but it’s important,” a member of the Canadian House of Commons tells Nadia Murad before she gives testimony about the mass slaughter she escaped at the hands of ISIS in a scene from “On Her Shoulders.” As many times as you’ve heard this sentiment before this moment in Alexandria Bombach’s second feature, you know Murad has heard it so much more, to the point that it’s been drained of any empathy that was intended by the person saying it and worse for her, it’s become part of a ritualized routine that includes her own remembrance of her experience being packaged into a tidy presentation for others to comprehend it when in reality it’s an unimaginable horror that she’ll never fully understand herself.
What Bombach vividly conveys in “On Her Shoulders” is the great burden that is all too unfortunately placed on victims in order for the larger society to be compelled to do the right thing politically, through Murad’s mission to raise awareness of the Yazidis’ plight around the world. Meticulously outlining the mechanics of getting global attention on human rights causes, Murad’s march towards becoming a U.N. Ambassador, which would give her a platform to speak to the heads of the global community directly, shows how her persistent advocacy requires her to relive the most painful moments of her life time and again for the benefit of others.
Bereft of the horrific imagery that often is associated with documentaries such as this, “On Her Shoulders” is more devastating simply in chronicling this Sisiphyean exercise, as Murad travels the globe, starting over with every new audience that has yet to hear her story and while the story itself doesn’t lose its power as you come to hear her tell it on radio and television shows, community town halls and government chambers, you see the toll it takes on her, sometimes unable to distance herself enough to continue telling it and at other times perhaps concerned that she’s somehow losing touch with it and doing a disservice to the great tragedy her friends and family experienced. She struggles with the awareness that the details of her rape are of interest to media outlets while talk of how to help the Yazidis in the future is secondary and that although she is celebrated everywhere she goes, she feels it is for the mere fact she is alive, rather than for what she has to say, when so many others from her village in Sinjar are dead or have been enlisted as sex slaves.
Bombach does everything she can to get out of the way of the raw power that Murad has, though the filmmaker’s skill is more than apparent in gentle touches like overlapping the cacophony of questions she has to answer on a regular basis through sound design and how she slowly brings people from Murad’s current life into the film as the circle of trust that allows her to feel as if she’s not going it alone. The filmmaker will occasionally just observe Murad sitting in front of the camera, observing her attempt to reconcile the past with the present and fight off the temptation to compartmentalize her experiences too much, and admirably resists placing Murad’s uphill battle in the context of a win/lose proposition. Instead, she asks us to hear what Murad is really saying, and while “On Her Shoulders” feels triumphant in how it demonstrates the power of persistence and grace under immeasurable pressure, it’s even stronger in what it suggests can happen when we listen in the first place.
“On Her Shoulders” will play at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st at 3 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library, January 22nd at the Redstone 7 in Park City at 11:30 a.m., January 23rd at 6 p.m. at the Sundance Resort in Provo, January 25th at 7 p.m. at the Holiday 4 in Park City and January 27th at 12:30 p.m. at the Ray in Park City.
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