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November 07, 2018

Denver Film Festival - On Her Shoulders


Alexandria Bombach - 2018
Oscilloscope Films

A little bit of historical background is needed here. The Yazidis are an ethnic group indigenous to a small section in northern Iraq. Their religious practice is a hybrid with parts taken from several monotheistic religions, both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic. Their history is one of being a persecuted minority, most recently by ISIS which view the Yazidis as devil-worshippers, and have campaigned for their total elimination. (Any of this sound somewhat familiar?) There are currently an estimated one-half million Yazidis worldwide. In August 2014, ISIS took over the town of Sinjar, killing most of the men. Women and girls over the age of nine were raped and enslaved. Nadia Murad was one of those women.

Alexandria Bombach's documentary follows Nadia Murad approximately a year later in her new role as a human rights activist. What is not mentioned is that prior to that time, Murad was able to escape from her ISIS captor around November 2014, and after living in a refugee camp, was able to gain asylum in Germany. Her testimony to a Belgian newspaper in February 2015, while she was still living in a refugee camp led to her assuming the role as spokesperson for the Yazadis.

The film initially follows Murad as she addresses members of Canada's parliament, and the United Nations, as well as television and radio interviews, essentially repeating the same story about herself, but also trying to bring attention to what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq. What Bombach is able to reveal through observation, as well as some of Murad's own words, is of a young woman who is probably experiencing some form of stress from having to retell her story and indirectly relive that part of her life. Also there seems to be a kind of reluctance in taking on a role that was never sought, from someone who would have been happy simply to have remained in her village, sewing, farming, possibly having her own beauty salon.

Bombach's film was completed before Nadia Murad won the Nobel Prize for her work regarding human trafficking. We do see her named as a Goodwill Ambassador at the United Nations, with Amal Clooney by her side. Bombach also shows Murad away from the spotlight, visiting a Canadian Yazidi community, with several young women maneuvering their way into a group selfie. A shopping visit ends with Murad giving herself a ride on a shopping cart in the parking lot.

Although not all of the issues are stated outright, On Her Shoulders should initiate thought regarding western governments dealings with refugees, as well as the ignorance of the situations of ethnic minorities in Middle Eastern countries. The choice of title is telling, as the viewer gets a sense of the weight carried by being a media celebrity, human rights activist, and virtually a would-be savior by other refugees.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 7, 2018 08:47 AM