Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Weight of the Past vs the Hope of the Future in On Her Shoulders

ON HER SHOULDERS 
(Alexandria Bombach, US, 2018, 94 minutes) 

Alexandria Bombach doesn’t build her documentary around a person with a particular job, but rather a person with a particular request. That’s how subject Nadia Murad, the soft-spoken 23-year-old at its center, describes herself to the filmmaker. Through public appearances, she seeks assistance on behalf of the Yazidis (a non-Muslim minority), who suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS or Daesh in Northern Iraq in 2014.

Nadia’s highest profile appearance takes place in 2015 when she speaks in front of the UN Security Council. Though the UN’s Simone Monasebian encourages her to describe herself as an activist, Nadia sees herself as a refugee. Simone doesn’t understand why she can’t be both, but Nadia doesn’t look at the situation through the same lens. When a Canadian radio host asks about her life before ISIS, she mentions school and farming. When ISIS came to her village, they killed most of the men and all of the older women. They raped younger women, like Nadia, repeatedly. It’s difficult to listen to her detail such atrocities, but it must be worse to relive them.

Nadia is a slight figure with long, dark hair, who once dreamed of opening a beauty salon. She has the calm, thoughtful countenance of Charlotte Gainsbourg, circa Jane Eyre. When she smiles, which isn’t often, she puts her entire face into it. She’s close to Murad Ismael, the 30-year-old executive director of Yazda, who has become a sort of surrogate brother (he also serves as her translator). If she cries on occasion, she spends more time comforting the Yazidis she meets at protest marches and in refugee camps. It means everything to them that she has become their face to the world.

From Canada, Nadia travels to Greece and then to New York where the UN appoints her Goodwill Ambassador for Human Trafficking (human rights attorney and recent Vogue cover star Amal Clooney accompanies her on the trip). As the end credits indicate, Nadia has continued to advocate for the Yazidi people ever since. If she didn’t set out to become an activist, she has proven to be a very effective one. As a filmmaker, Bombach (Frame by Frame) treats her with respect, but stops short of full-fledged worship. Nadia is still a human being, albeit one with more passion and poise than most.

If there’s a subtext to Bombach's film it’s that even well meaning people don’t always know how to respond to someone like Nadia. Politicians and journalists come across as concerned in a way that seems more awkward than insincere. They can’t decide whether to treat her like a delicate flower or a grizzled warrior, and her reserved manner throws them off. It’s not that she’s cold so much as self-contained, and I think that’s why she never opens up in this film as much as she could have. It feels like she’s holding something back, but maybe that’s the only way to get from day to day, dredging up terrible memories to discomforted people for the greater good.



Endnote: On Her Shoulders plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Avenue) through Thursday, January 10. Check the website for times.

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