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“On Her Shoulders:” Enacting Social Change and Where a Filmmaker Fits in That Process

"This is a film that explores the distance between the victim and her voice, the fragility of human emotions that both provoke and hinder positive change, and the unbelievable resilience of a woman willing to sacrifice herself to play the media game that is modern advocacy."

“When Nadia Murad walks into a meeting—whether with a politician, a journalist, or a diplomat—there is a sense of tension,” says director Alexandria Bombach, who follows the activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in the documentary On Her Shoulders.

“Understandably, it seems that for many it’s difficult to know what to say, what questions to ask, how to express that they care but at the same time not promise too much. They most likely know her wrenching story before she starts, yet no matter how much detail she gives, they also know they couldn’t possibly, truly understand her experience.

On Her Shoulders
, Bombach explains, “explores that space—the distance between the victim and her voice, the fragility of human emotions that both provoke and hinder positive change, and the unbelievable resilience of a woman willing to sacrifice herself to play the media game that is modern advocacy.

“The past four years of Nadia’s life have been unimaginable. On August 3, 2014, ISIS declared that the Yazidi people of Northern Iraq had long been a shame to their idea of Islam, and set out to commit genocide. An estimated 5,000 people were killed in the weeks that followed, and over 7,000 women and children were captured, forced to become sex slaves and child soldiers. Nadia was captured on the same day that ISIS killed her mother and six brothers. Eighteen members of her family were either killed or enslaved.

“As she begins to tell her story, which I heard her recount over and over again, you might think that she would become used to it. But Nadia communicates the weight of her experience in her eyes. At the end of each and every meeting—through the business suits and flurry of handshakes, a long lens captures her sinking back into herself to recover—she is visibly drained.”

“I’d never seen behind the curtain of advocacy or what it takes at this kind of global level,” Bombach tells Janet Kinosian. “The pageantry that abounds, the agendas everyone has, the sheer marketing of it all. My responsibility was to show that side, because that’s the side we don’t get to see.

“And I realized Nadia did change in the time we filmed—how she’d become very disillusioned with the process. So throughout I reflected a lot on our role: whether it’s as a journalist or documentary filmmaker—what are we really doing here? What’s the job? Hers and ours.” To read the full interview, click here.

“I followed Nadia and the people working closest with her in the summer of 2016,” Bombach recalls. “From refugee camps in Greece to a memorial rally on the anniversary of the genocide in Berlin, to the House of Commons in Ottawa and the United Nations headquarters in New York, Nadia’s life is in constant motion. What I saw was an exhausting process, with no real roadmap for success. I started to see her lose faith in outlets that she had entrusted with her story.”

“I was shaken by the questions Nadia was expected to answer, and I’m still disturbed by people asking those questions to me in Q&As during the screenings of this film,” Bombach tells Lauren Wissot. “I want the audience to question why they even want to know these things in the first place. Does it make a difference to how much you care about the Yazidis? How much you care about what Nadia and thousands of other women went through? Will you act if you know just how many times Nadia was raped, how long she was in captivity, or how she escaped?

“This film made me question everything we do as storytellers, as well as the current landscape of journalism and documentary filmmaking, and how we package stories of trauma for a world that will so easily forget them no matter how much detail you give. What is our responsibility to survivors? It was difficult to witness and grapple with these things, but it wasn’t hard to make the choice to not ask Nadia those questions in this film.” To read the full interview, click here.

“I made a conscious choice to not focus on anything to do with her captivity or escape and just focus on the work she’s doing now,” Bombach tells Matthew Carey, “trying to tell a story of what this experience was like within this campaign.” To read the full interview, click here.

“I like to edit my own films and this one was really difficult; it was harder than the shoot, in fact,” the director adds in her interview with Kinosian. “Because shooting you just focus and do the best job you possibly can, it’s a different personal space.

“When I edit, I’m trying hard to open my chest up and feel feelings I experienced with her, so it was a difficult thing. Also, I’m rewatching [Islamic State] videos over and over again, then sobbing, and really trying to understand the severity of the issue and Nadia’s emotions. It was very difficult to try and constantly open up my chest to all these complexities. It was about a yearlong edit.” To read the full interview, click here.

“What I feel Alexandria so gracefully portrayed in the film is, ‘What is the point of awareness without action?'” the film’s producer Hayley Pappas tells Cary. “We hope the film leaves viewers with… just a reflection of what does it take to get the world’s attention? Then once we do pay attention, what sort of responsibility do all of us have as civilians to do something with that?” To read the full interview, click here.

“The platform of the victim, the survivor, is nothing to be taken lightly,” Bombach concludes. “Nadia herself knows that her words have moved people to take action. It is my hope that this intimate access into Nadia’s life off the podium will reveal the true struggles that a voiceless community faces in getting the world to act.”