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For Your Consideration: On Her Shoulders, the Best Documentary Feature of 2018

Meet Nadia Murad, a Sinjar refugee, who has more scars than we can imagine during a lifetime – let alone on the shoulders of a 24 year-old woman. A member of the depleting Yazidi faith, Nadia was subject to horrific personal trauma when the Islamic State invaded her northern Iraq village. The consequences, and unfathomable actions, of such violence in the name of religion, resulted in over 600 deaths. That’s to say nothing of the awful repercussions of genocide, war, human trafficking.

On Her Shoulders, a powerful, essential documentary from Alexandria Bombach (who also edited the picture), finds a beacon of hope in Nadia Murad. A survivor of the brutal persecution of her people, witnessing family members killed or captured. Before she herself was enslaved and the victim of repeated rape, before fortunately escaping.

“There’s still a quivering delicateness to the young woman, one who has seemingly been redefined by the sacrifices she has had to endure.”

On Her Shoulders

Nadia Murad might be assumed to have humble origins. There’s still a quivering delicateness to the young woman, one who has seemingly been redefined by the sacrifices she has had to endure. We won’t know how timid or extrovert Murad was prior to those awful events.

On Her Shoulders is not about her background, as much as it is to the here and now. And, the future. A remarkable woman’s journey to tell her story over and over through the media. Carrying an almighty advocacy for peace, and an end to the suffering many other women also contend with – even as we watch this documentary.

This victim does not want to be a victim. Murad finds her voice in activism, to raise awareness of these tragic experiences through the social landscape. Across the globe. Churning out interviews, carried into the forefront of public speaking. To which she is naturally gifted, with or without the emotional baggage.

“Nadia Murad was meant to speak to us, the world.”

Whether a plea for her people to the United Nations, on the path to her role as their first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. The Nobel Peace Prize for the unwavering efforts to carve an ending to the terror. Or the publishing of her book, Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. Nadia Murad was meant to speak to us, the world.

Immeasurable achievements, for sure, but this is a film about the awakened voice. On Her Shoulders accompanies Murad in her plight for justice. New York. Berlin. Given access to the parliamentary interiors in Canada. Visiting with other Yazidi refugees in Greece.

Every scene is a stepping stone to a truly great documentary. The cultural gulf demonstrated by Nadia and her shadowing ally, Murad Ismael (Executive Director of Yazda, slash, devoted interpreter). An instance as they watch on, Canadian troops march in a public parade, kind of refreshing to them that “nobody is blowing themselves up”. Or in Europe, Nadia comforting, employing strength, to those avid supporters that flock around her, sobbing in reflection of her suffering. Their out-pour also a clinging to that bright light of hope.

Director Alexandria Bombach makes sure her camera is in all the right places. All the while, keeping her distance, fully aware and respectful of Nadia’s eye-watering tale. Bombach, too, executes a kind of succoring bedside manner, in terms of her film editing. Allowing us to see Nadia in moments of discomfort – consensual. But also cutting away from audio / visual moments so not to unnecessarily prolong the agony.

On Her Shoulders

“Nadia cut off her beautiful long hair, so not to appear as enticing to the monsters.”

Nadia Murad is a survivor. A woman  turned inside out by religious extremism, and now permitting those scars to be prodded and poked. But for the sake of a greater future for others. How she finds the reserve of human spirit to embark on such a painful, public journey, is both mind-blowing and awe-inspiring.

Through sporadic talking heads sequences, Murad talks to the camera.  She does not want people to see her as a hero, a savior. Rather she just longs for the questions she is asked to be about the bigger picture. To enable her to express the kind of graphic details that wake us up to the horrors. Later, during a hearing, we learn that Nadia cut off her beautiful long hair, so not to appear as enticing to the monsters. The heart despairs.

On Her Shoulders thus provides a moving account of blatant misjustice. But one of many where authorititive onlookers seem to be still turning a blind eye. A young boy sings and strums his guitar in harmony of the misery. A tough Canadian representative chokes up when meeting Nadia – later gifting her a maple leaf trinket in respect of that nation’s full support. The Yazda lady over a hundred years old, sitting crossed legs by the window. Moments of human turmoil and glory.

Just as Bombach is assured in not treading on sensitive toes, Patrick Jonsson’s original score is a poignant amplifying of the story, without any heavy-handed overtures. With On Her Shoulders, the emotive reach comes from Nadia’s all-too-real narrative. And a hearty portion of Bombach’s accomplishments here is due to that uncompromising natural flow, over potentially boundary-crossing technical flair.

It’s a penetrating, highly-affecting documentary. Unflinchingly bold, raw, but handled with an appropriate level of tender, loving care. Something Nadia Murad has more than earned, where she not-so-humble to admit it.

“Bombach’s artistic and empathetic portrayal is certainly one to be admired.”

Nadia is shown throughout in all her pensive, nervous stature. Her face is always striking, there’s an undeniable magnetism to her changing expressions. And Bombach knows exactly how to frame her. Be it fidgeting hands, wandering aimlessly in a clothes store, joking about the reputation of certain news channels. When talking about her dreams, to open a salon so she can make others look good. Or that she once yearned for the simplicity of life where she would have been a seamstress, perhaps.

On Her Shoulders

That encouraging wish for normalcy in the midst of media spotlight, is a tough compromise. One Nadia grabs by the hair with both hands. This exceptional, determined young woman is a eye-opening reminder to us of the importance of human dignity. And Bombach’s artistic and empathetic portrayal is certainly one to be admired.

Without doubt, 2018 was a stunning year for documentaries. And with so many big-hitters popping up everywhere during this hectic awards season, On Her Shoulders earns its place among them. A statement of such passion, with a true sense of social posturing, the film provides an intense viewpoint on a very real issue. And one done with such conviction, demonstrating a marvelous resilience – largely through Nadia.

Even when, for so many moments, On Her Shoulders is soberly upsetting, the gusto and sheer stoicism of our heroine, somehow manages to be uplifting, too. An encouraging, devastating account, then. Nadia Murad is anything but a burden, yearning to replace her tears with rays of sunlight – she’ll inspire you all, she’ll break your heart, and ultimately demonstrate a steely strength to really make a difference.

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One Comment

  1. […] On Her Shoulders is a gut-wrenching document of a Yazidi woman who survived genocide and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS and telling her story to the UN. Despite the rough subject matter, the bravery being portrayed is incredible, and it may strike voters as the most urgent film among the choices. Unfortunately, they could also dismiss it as the most depressing. […]

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