Nadia Murad has been through a lot. In 2014, she was kidnapped and held captive by the Islamic State. She was scarred and raped. She saw most of her family and hundreds of others in her village killed. She witnessed a genocide of her people, the Yazidis. She escaped and joined what’s left of her community as part of the global refugee crisis. In a way, as her memoir entitled The Last Girl hints at, she’s like the final survivor of a horror movie, only it is real life, the body count is much greater, and her story is far from over.
Now she has to relive her traumas again and again for the sake of awareness. Murad, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, has become the leading voice for the Yazidis, speaking to the media and to politicians about the genocide, about those women still enslaved by ISIS, about the Yazidi refugees in need of a home, and often about her own personal experiences. Hearing Murad’s story is upsetting enough, but the fact that she has to retell what happened to her over and over is another level of cringeworthiness.
In the award-winning documentary On Her Shoulders, directed by Alexandria Bombach (Frame by Frame), Murad is shown making TV and radio appearances, being groomed for the cameras and asked about her specific story when she’d rather talk about what’s still going on and how it needs to stop. She meets with members of the Canadian Parliament and is constantly asked about her individual comfort and status when she’s there as a representative of hundreds of thousands of people.
The pageantry that Murad has to endure is often painful to watch and listen to. Every concerned talk show host and politician reveals a shallowness in how they treat and talk to Murad. One woman gifts Murad some sort of maple leaf trinket as a reminder that Canadians are thinking of her. The same woman mentions that her mother was moved by Murad’s story and would love for the refugee activist to come with her. It’s insulting how much Murad’s past struggles and present personal well-being is given such focus when that’s not the point. She doesn’t need the world to give her a hug.
The offenses continue at the United Nations, where Murad is honored with a Goodwill Ambassador title and given the opportunity to address the world on the issue of human trafficking. Yes, now her words of advocacy for others will be heard, yet there’s still so much attention on how she looks. We hear a news clip stating that she and Amal Clooney “may not look like warriors.” A woman at the UN speaks during the appointment ceremony to say she’s glad to see the return of Murad’s “beautiful long hair,” which had been cut before as a way to appear less attractive to the monsters who’d raped her.
Of course, as director and editor, Bombach is choosing to show us the most embarrassing superficialities that Murad encounters in her activism through montages of media appearances and close-ups on her subject’s weary face as audio clips of wrongheaded comments are made by interviewers and as she sits for photo shoots and waits around for her next engagement. And Murad does get to stand in for many others in these sequences, as we assume this is the life for many activists going through the motions in the hopes that their message and cause are heard by anybody.
Fortunately, we do also see how much Murad is making a difference. Bombach follows her subject to Berlin for a protest rally commemorating the anniversary of the genocide and to a refugee camp in Greece where she and her partner in activism, Murad Ismael, meet with the people they’re trying to help, as well as with former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. In these spaces, she is portrayed as a real leader but also as an equal. Her personal passion as both a survivor and someone with a resilient spirit doesn’t just move us for the moment, the way a TV or radio appearance only allows. This is not a photo opp. This is for her people. It’s surely what Murad would rather be doing, directly inspiring and reassuring her fellow Yazidis.
The film also follows Murad to New York and shows her speaking to the UN as an ultimate triumph, making all the affectation she’s had to parade herself through worth it. Not that her work is done by any means. In one of her sit-down testimonials for the film, she says she will continue to feel worthless until the terrorists are brought to justice. When she stops feeling like a victim and can be known not as a public figure — she has no wish to become a politician — but as a farmer or a seamstress.
On Her Shoulders isn’t a common profile of an important person nor is it really an issue film calling for support. Those things manifest through what Bombach is doing more pointedly in displaying the extra weight of an activist’s duty in the public eye. Films can be more than one thing, and this documentary rightfully gets to have its cake and eat it, too, doing so without any irony or hypocrisy where many would still include the subject retelling her personal trauma even as it shames other media for doing so.
The criticism of the media and political posturing is the most interesting aspect of the film — best expressed metaphorically when Murad comments on the difference between a ceremonial show of Canadian military troops and the armies fighting in her homeland — but I’m also glad that the documentary isn’t just a spotlight of the fake formalities, which would be a dishonor, and does ultimately also show us why Murad deserves that Nobel Prize and makes us conscious of her goal and how her issue needs solutions. She has to be the cake but also gets to feed her objective, and the film spotlights both sides.