Film

Review: A Young Woman Rises to the Occasion in Powerful On Her Shoulders

Following an attack by the Taliban while on her way to school, Malala Yousafzai became a global advocate for peace, equality and education. Her name is known around the world, thanks in no small part to her diligent work (for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014), as well as the media’s pervasive coverage of her, the documentary film about her, her memoir and other books she’s written…

On Her Shoulders

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Films

Potentially less well known—though just as courageous, inspiring and world-changing—is Nadia Murad, a young woman from a nearby part of the world whose life was up-ended not by the Taliban but an equally despicable force. In 2014, ISIS terrorists plundered the village in Iraq where she lived with her family in their Yazidi community. A minority in that country, the Yazidi were (and are) targeted by ISIS for eradication by any means necessary, including murdering the men and boys and taking the women and girls into sex slavery. Eventually (and after much trauma), Nadia escaped Iraq and found refuge secure enough to allow her to speak up about the realities of what’s happening to her people.

Worth noting, Nadia also won a Nobel Peace Prize; she was awarded the honor in 2018.

But I digress.

Documentarian Alexandria Bombach (Frame By Frame) shares Nadia’s story—and by proxy that of the Yazidi people—with the world in her latest film, On Her Shoulders. The cinema-verite documentary follows Nadia through the months leading up to that Nobel Prize win and all the work she’s doing in Europe and the U.S. to both shed light on the plight of the Yazidi people and serve as a beacon of hope and resilience to those in her community still suffering.

A bit older than Malala (today, Nadia is 26), she brings a certain maturity to a new reality that’s full of media appearances, attendance at human rights rallies and preparing for a speech at the UN. She is undeniably at the center of that vulnerable time in a young woman’s life where she’s still very much in touch with her innocent young self and equally anxious to become the formidable woman of her own future. It’s painfully, beautifully evident throughout the film as Nadia vacillates between (understandably) breaking down in the face of the lives ruined and lost and gathering all her resolve to stand on stage or at a podium to speak her truth.

Bombach follows Nadia and her growing team of well-meaning handlers for months, developing an intimacy with her subject that allows for glimpses into a roller coaster of a life. Sitting in on countless interviews where she’s asked again and again what she experienced at the hands of ISIS, one hopes after the camera turns off, someone is there to give the young woman a hug and remind her she’s not alone. Between these real-time moments, Bombach interviews Nadia directly; though there’s no shortage of outlets through which she can tell her story and call for the action needed to end the suffering of the Yazidi people, the moments she speaks directly to the camera—directly to us—are by far the film’s most poignant.

Often what’s happening across town can seem a world away, let alone atrocities happening that actually are a world away. Bombach’s film, and Nadia’s willingness to participate in it, reminds us that what happens a world away is happening to us, to all of us as humankind. In some of her brighter moments, when “fans” want selfies or she smiles and laughs at something in passing, one could imagine a reality where Nadia hadn’t suffered all that’s in her past. But she has, and her work is far from over. As her community turns to her for salvation, as world leaders turn to her for wisdom, and as she comes to terms with all the responsibility placed squarely on her shoulders, those of us living less afflicted lives can be certain of one thing: the world is better off with women like Nadia (and Malala) in it.

On Her Shoulders film screens this week at Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Stranger Than Fiction documentary series.

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