On Her Shoulders

Review by Willard Manus

The title of this new documentary is apt, because 24-year old Nadia Murad is indeed carrying the fate of her people on her slim shoulders.

In August, 2014 ISIS invaded the corner of northern Iraq where the Yazidi people had lived for centuries. Claiming that the Yazidis were renegade Muslims, ISIS proceeded to commit genocide. An estimated 5,000 people were killed and over 7000 women and children were captured, forced to become sex slaves and child soldiers. Among the latter was Nadia Murad, who watched her mother and six brothers being murdered before she was taken off and imprisoned in an ISIS bordello.

After her escape, Nadia made it to the West and became a spokesperson for the Yazidis, a tireless and dogged advocate for justice, one who bared her soul in public time and time again in hopes of persuading the powers that be to take action against ISIS.

As ON HER SHOULDERS shows, Nadia was a reluctant media warrior. “I’d much rather be a student, an athlete, a farmer than keep talking about how I was raped or what it was like to see my mother killed,” she says at one point. But despite her reluctance, despite the pain and sadness that are reflected in her soft brown eyes, she bravely soldiers on, giving TV and radio interviews, addressing the House of Commons (in Canada), the United Nations (in New York), marching in an anti-genocide rally (in Berlin), visiting refugee camps in Greece.

Her life is in constant motion. She travels the world, accompanied by her fellow-Yazidi and English-speaking confidant, Murad Ishmael, writing and making speeches, conferring with politicians and civil servants, appearing before women’s groups. It is an exhausting, draining life and a frustrating one as well, if only because the world is slow to come to the aid of her people, is content to let them languish in camps or emigrate in small numbers to countries far from their homes and fields, their communal strength.

ON HER SHOULDERS is directed by Alexandra Bombach, who followed Nadia and her small entourage in 2016 as she went from city to city, office to office, bigshot to bigshot, telling her story again and again. At times she loses faith in her mission, concludes that she is fighting a losing battle. She dissolves in tears, even breaks out into a rage, only to be consoled by Ishmael and buoyed s up by the likes of Amal Clooney (George’s wife), a human-rights lawyer, and Luis Campos, a former United Nations executive, both of whom were instrumental in persuading the UN to appoint Nadia as its first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

Today Nadia, again with Amal Clooney’s help, is working to bring ISIS before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. She was also able, in 2017, to return to her Iraqi village when ISIS was defeated there, only to confront almost complete destruction–-hardly a building left standing, nary a man or boy in sight.

Bombach’s powerful and important documentary has won awards at several film festivals. Let’s hope that it will reach a larger audience and enable the surviving Yazidis to return to their homeland.