On Her Shoulders

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

On Her Shoulders - A Yazidi genocide and ISIS sexual slavery survivor, 23-year-old Nadia Murad is determined to tell the world her story. As her journey leads down paths of advocacy and fame, she becomes the voice of her people and their best hope to spur the world to action.
"The film follows Nadia at a time when support for her cause is growing, though she still has very little in the way of personal support." | Photo: Alexandria Bombach

At the age of 19, Nadia Murad Basee Taha, just an ordinary girl from an Iraqi village, was kidnapped by Daesh fighters and held prisoner for three months, during which time she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused. She's resistant to descriptions of this as the worst thing that could happen to someone, saying that she saw worse happen to much younger girls. Many did not survive. It's estimated that around 7,000 Yazidi women and children have been held captive like this. Nadia - who has received a Nobel Peace prize since this film was made - not only lived but raised her voice to help them all.

Most rape survivors find their experience difficult to discuss with anyone. Nadia has talked about hers at meetings all around the world, and even in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Watching her in this documentary, one can see that this is not because she finds it any easier. It's because she has found it necessary. She wants serious action to help the more than 3,000 abductees whose whereabouts remain unknown. She wants political intervention to make it safe for Yazidi people to return to the Sinjar region from which they were taken. She wants more countries to grant asylum to Yazidi refugees. The only way to make this happen is to move people emotionally, and for that she has to let them see her pain.

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What does this work do to somebody who is still only 25 and has all the ordinary burden of trauma and displacement to deal with as well? This is the focus of Alexandria Bombach's film. He seeks to look beyond Nadia's extraordinary strength and see her the way she sees herself - as just another girl from the village, never trained to speak to world leaders or act as the voice of her community. As viewers with experience of activism will know all too well, the more one does, the more one is expected to do. Constantly petitioned by people who see her as their only hope, told horrific stories and asked to bear other people's frustrations when she can't resolve matters at speed, Nadia faces awful pressure. We are told that she has several times declared she can't go on, but how can she stop when the hopes of so many rest on her shoulders?

The film follows Nadia at a time when support for her cause is growing, though she still has very little in the way of personal support. There's a touching scene when she first meets Amal Clooney, one of very few people able to offer meaningful support for her work and connect to her as a human being, addressing her in Arabic. The distancing effect of translation - both linguistic and across the culture gap that exists between a Middle Eastern villager and Western politicians and journalists - visibly enhances the young woman's loneliness. She misses having the option of wearing a veil because now everybody expects her to tame her misbehaving hair. But life still has its small pleasures - shopping for clothes or listening to a military band perform music from Star Wars in an outdoor concert.

On Her Shoulders doesn't really get much deeper than this and unless you're already familiar with the political situation you may find it difficult to follow parts of what's happening, but as a story about a person who happens to have found herself living as a politician, it's a powerful piece of work.

Reviewed on: 14 Nov 2018
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On Her Shoulders packshot
A Yazidi genocide and ISIS sexual slavery survivor, 23-year-old Nadia Murad is determined to tell the world her story. As her journey leads down paths of advocacy and fame, she becomes the voice of her people and their best hope to spur the world to action.

Director: Alexandria Bombach

Writer: Hishyar Abid, Nawaf Ashur, Deniz Ekici, Yousif Haskan, Shahnaz Osso

Starring: Nadia Murad, Murad Ismael, Amal Clooney, Ki-moon Ban, Nadia Murad, Murad Ismael, Amal Clooney, Ki-moon Ban

Year: 2018

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


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