DIFF Documentary Review: ‘On Her Shoulders’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Nadia Murad’s story is a powerful one. A member of the Yazidis, who were the targets of genocide by ISIS beginning in 2014, she survived the destruction of her village in northern Iraq and several months of physical and sexual abuse as a slave. She now works tirelessly as an advocate for her people: the women and children still held in captivity, those who managed to flee to refugee camps, and those who did not survive. On Her Shoulders exposes so much more than the humanitarian plight of Nadia’s people, though. It is a wrenching portrait of a young woman whose “simple” hopes for the future have been dashed, who must recount the trauma of her captivity over and over again as an advocate, and who must struggle daily against the lumbering bureaucracies with good intentions that move so slowly towards aid.

Director Alexandria Bombach finds power in silence, often following cries of anguish or pleas for help with a ringing lack of human voices. You’re left with the sounds of pain, frustration, anger and nothing to ameliorate them. As a subject, Murad has been set so far apart from the normal human experience by terrorism, yet there are moments where the familiar qualities of any young woman shine through. Her rare smiles come when describing her dream to open a salon where other women can feel good about themselves, or the strength and friendship she has found with Murad Ismael, director of the NGO Yazda and her constant companion in the fight for justice.

It’s painful to think about all that she has willingly sacrificed at such a young age to advocate for her people; at one point, she’s told point blank that no one else can find a long-term solution for the displaced Yazidi. A heavy burden for anyone to bear and the strain is evident in her gaze and posture every time Nadia turns away from the public eye. If you’re looking for a primer on the Yazidi, ISIS, or conflict in the Middle East this isn’t the film to watch. Instead, Bombach exposes the exhausting torpidity of justice, and how the petitioning of it is an entirely new, emotionally draining ordeal for those most deserving of respite.

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