On Her Shoulders is a documentary about Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi, who survived genocide and sexual slavery committed by ISIS, and how she finds herself on the international stage as the voice for her people.
Yazidis are a non-Muslim ethnic group with their own unique religion and values. In August 2014 in northern Iraq, ISIS attacked and took over a town that was predominantly inhabited by Yazidis. Thousands of men were killed while thousands of women and girls were forced into sexual slavery, those who managed to escape became refugees. Nadia Murad suffered at the hands of ISIS for years before she managed to escape, eighteen members of her family were killed, and she, along with girls younger than her, was repeatedly raped.
On Her Shoulders doesn’t really give a lot of background on the Yazidis and the genocide, instead focusing on the aftermath and the struggles the people are now facing. They are refugees who often end up in different countries and that leaves them worried about the future of their culture and community if they are unable to go back to their homeland. On Her Shoulders shows that there are many hurdles in front of the Yazidis and Nadia can’t solve them all, it’s the UN and the media that are needed to help make a difference.
Nadia is an incredibly strong person and it’s equal parts inspiring and frustrating seeing her have to relive such horrendous events so many times in front of world politicians and the international media, in order to try and get her story and her people’s story, out there. At one point she talks about the questions she wants the journalists to ask her, her hopes and plans for her future, and the future of the Yazidis, instead of constantly being asked about the horrific things she experienced, and people wanting to know all the gory details. There’s no doubt that international politics and the refugee crisis is vast, complicated and slow-moving, and Nadia is almost stuck in that political and media machine if she wants there to be some form of justice.
It’s the moments where the camera rests on Nadia, as she practices a speech or is quiet as others around her speak English (something she is learning but isn’t fluent in), that the full effect of what she’s going through is seen. She often appears tired, frustrated and lost but then there’s a moment where her resolve shines through and she’s back to the task in hand. She’s lost her family, and is in many ways alone, but it’s clear she’s found a new family with Murad Ismael, Deputy Director of Yazda (a global organisation to support the Yazidi and other vulnerable groups), and the other lawyers and officials who are working with her to get justice for her people. It’s clear that the filmmakers gained Nadia’s trust, as amidst the preparations for speeches at the UN, they captured Nadia’s more normal everyday events like going clothes shopping or messing around as she and her newfound friends cook dinner.
On Her Shoulders is a powerful documentary about a strong young woman who is now living a life that’s vastly different to the one she wanted. Travelling the world, talking to world leaders and visiting refugee camps, Nadia is someone who continues to speak even when it seems like no one is listening.
On Her Shoulders is on limited release in the UK now and is a 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards nominee.