Film Review: On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders, the second feature length documentary from Alexandria Bombach, is a study of genocide survivor and activist Nadia Murad’s life in the public eye. It is a bold, important film, and one which puts you into the mind of its main character to such an extent that it begins to alter your view of the world we live in.
Nadia was a member of a small village of Kocho in the northern part of Iraq, home to many members of the Yazidi faith. Her life was that of the average citizen until Islamic State drove into the village, slaughtered its community and forced her into slavery along with hundreds of other young girls. Despite the horrific torture and sexual violence Nadia suffered in captivity, she and a large number of other girl managed to escape and join the thousands of other refugees fleeing the war. On Her Shoulders follows her on her journey as she tries to have her voice heard above the thousands of others victims screaming out in terror.
The film blends cinema verite with a formal interview with Nadia herself, constantly switching between the two. Bombach reaches out and engages with her variation of shot structure, making the viewer feel fully immersed. There is tonal contrast between the formal interview and scenes of improvisation; the former presents a sombre and disheartening tone as Nadia relives the events of her life, with the latter demonstrating a slightly lighter tone, a noticeable increase in the usage of brighter scenes and colours and even the occasional laugh and smile from Nadia and those around her.

Bombach is able to craft a telling tale through her use of selected scenes. A lone cameraman following Nadia around with an, albeit simple, handheld camera somehow makes the film all the more relatable, and ,maybe this is in a sense showing us what Nadia really wants. She doesn’t some pumped up film with vibrant colours and those tricky American camera shots; she wants a simple and basic platform to deliver her message and this is achieved with a much more simplistic and direct approach.

The interview itself is the most visually striking element to On Her Shoulders, in the sense that it is a very minimalistic portrayal of Nadia herself. She is dressed in a simple set of clothes which which mix with the plain black background, and speaks plainly so that her pain and sadness come to the forefront of the account of her life.

This formal interview is not the only one that we are shown. Throughout the film. Nadia is repeatedly interviewed; in one scene, the music and camera tensely depict that these interviews are becoming uncomfortable and repetitive in their line of questioning. Instead of being asked questions relating to the Yazidi people still being subjected by Islamic State, we see interviewers very bluntly asking Nadia painful, personal questions directly relating to the methods that Islamic fighters used to abuse her.
This speaks volumes to western culture’s ineptitude to listen,understand and empathise. As if to visually represent this, we see Nadia interact throughout with Amal Clooney who helps with the legal side of her case. This celebrity boost clearly helps with exposure –  however, is this right? It provides a moral dilemma for the viewer to sort out for themselves. It will require you to stop and think carefully, on the one hand the exposure that Nadia is receiving is beneficial as it allows her to draw an audience of people that will listen to her message, however, is it morally good for people to only pay attention to Nadia because her friend has the name Clooney attached. Whilst the issue isn’t directly implied I think it’s clear that Nadia wants people listing for the right reasons.

While the ethical themes are conceptually interesting and provide a lot of food for thought, the biggest selling point of this movie has got to be Nadia herself. She shows that even though she has become internationally recognised for her activism, she still isn’t living her dream. We see that her aspiration was to open her own salon, in which she wished to have the ability to make young women feel special. This of course is ripped away from her and she is automatically tagged as “just another refugee”.
Nadia constantly tries to highlight to the many panels that she visits that the refugee crisis is often talked about as though it is an issue which can be solved incrementally. Nadia’s story hammers home that this isn’t an issue that can be stretched out over decades. She explains to us in the many in the many interviews she attends that she herself has visited the refugee camps and is very much aware that this issue is becoming worse by the day and we are facing gulag level conditions in these camps with very little food, hardly any medical treatment with the inhabitants being confined to a smaller and smaller living spaces. Nadia stresses to us that this is an issue that needs addressed now before it gets out of hand.

Nadia is determined to make it known that she is not a refugee out of choice. This is clear. Yet, so many of us in today’s western world – Instagram users swarming Nadia, trying to grab a selfie with her –  are focused too on stardom to notice. Nadia wants her message heard and the right questions asked. If On Her Shoulders tells us anything it’s that she certainly doesn’t want is some random guy shoving the latest iPhone in her face so he can post it on his story.
The way Nadia acts we can tell that she clearly doesn’t want to get things done just because she made the right connections or had the right face and age. However, if that’s what it takes to save her people, then by God is she ready to face the storm.


By Darren Beattie