Film Reviews

Review: ‘On Her Shoulders’

Hot Docs 2018

Nadia Murad sits in the UNODC office, preparing for an upcoming speech at the UN
Hot Docs


On Her Shoulders
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Alexandria Bombach
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Films like On Her Shoulders are awkward to review. When a documentary tackles a subject that is still making headlines, the breadth and depth of its inquiry is inevitably limited. The doc has no meat beyond the portrait of its subject and the cause for which she is “the face.” The subject deserves one’s attention, so disapproval of the film feels like dismissal of her story.

A circular dance between cynicism and forgiveness, however, invites one to recognize that a film like On Her Shoulders deserves a platform even if the audience likely to be moved by it simply can’t be bothered to read the paper or watch the evening news. If it gives a wider reach to a worthy cause, that’s still fine.

The subject of On Her Shoulders is Nadia Murad Basee Taha. Her story is a devastating account of being ripped from her school in Kocho, a small village of Sinjar, Iraq, and forced into sexual slavery by ISIS. She escaped, but lost many friends and family members in ISIS’s violent slaughter of the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious minority. As a survivor, Murad provides a voice for Yazidi women waiting to be saved and was appointed the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking in 2016. The passion with which Murad speaks about the plight of other women affected by ISIS will hopefully keep momentum going when audiences and news cycles have the attention span of a Twitter feed.

Alexandria Bombach won a directing prize at Sundance for this portrait of Murad, but On Her Shoulders might just as well have been made by Murad’s publicist. It’s a humanizing portrait of a figure who absolutely deserves attention. But it’s not exactly a penetrating one.

The bulk of the film is essentially behind the scenes footage of Murad on an intense media tour as she prepares to address the United Nations. Even human rights causes have junket-style gong shows of interviews, cameras, sound bites, bad potato salad, selfies, and speeches. The film sees Murad relive her traumatic experience as a sex slave, and she tearfully speaks about her lost friends and family repeatedly to journalists fishing for salacious details. It’s a grind and the exhaustion she exhibits evokes the weight of the world on her shoulders. (Hence the title.) Then, with the aid of Amal Clooney, she addresses the United Nations in a triumphant finale.

Outside of the interviews that are already a YouTube hit or Google search away, Bombach features some candid observational footage of Murad finding her breath outside the media blitz. Much of these sequences play out in Canada as Murad addresses MPs in Ottawa and encourages them to save the Yazidi. After filming Murad doing a little shopping at Aritizia and shooting some B-roll for CTV by the eternal flame, Bombach finds one truly great shot that conveys with disarming frankness the hell Murad escaped. Murad and her aid, Murad Ismael, simply watch a band perform at Parliament Hill. She notes the crowd of people sitting in the sun, enjoying the music, and taking photos by the Peace Tower. “Nobody is blowing themselves up,” Murad observes with a mix of awe and relief.

Murad’s voice arises again in new direct address interviews with Bombach intercut throughout the film. Here’s where On Her Shoulders succeeds. Murad gives her story in her voice and in her terms. She answers the hard questions that many reporters and politicians are too timid to ask. Murad vents her frustration over being treated and interviewed as if she’s a Kardashian when she has a legitimate reason to be in the spotlight: people are dying, girls are being raped, lives are being destroyed, and ISIS is waging a genocide.

Her strong perspective offers a how-to guide for interviewing survivors and for putting their stories to productive use to inspire change. The film about her, similarly, is a guide on the pros and cons of cranking out a movie to capture the zeitgeist.

On Her Shoulders screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 6:15 PM at Isabel Bader
-Wed, May 2 at 10:00 AM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, May 5 at TIFF Lightbox

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Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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