The harrowing story of Nadia Murad — who escaped captivity by the Islamic State, going on to receive the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her work speaking out against wartime sexual violence — has been well publicized. Now 25, Murad was one of thousands of women and girls captured and sexually enslaved by ISIS in 2014 as part of its genocidal assault on the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in northern Iraq; her mother and six of her brothers were killed.
The powerful and affecting documentary “On Her Shoulders” doesn’t rehash Murad’s suffering in painful detail. Instead, filmmaker Alexandria Bombach, who made the 2015 Afghanistan documentary “Frame by Frame,” chronicles Murad’s more recent life, revealing her to be a compelling and inspiring subject.
Bombach follows Murad during part of 2016 as she travels through Europe and North America with fellow survivors and activists to call attention to the Yazidis’ plight. In other scenes, she prepares for her wrenching speech that September to the United Nations and is shown working with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney on an International Criminal Court case against members of ISIS.
Murad’s life is a blur of speeches, interviews, photo ops and meetings, throughout which she is poised and articulate, resilient and strong despite the horrors she’s gone through. But she also bears the heavy weight of being a voice for her people: She often appears to be on the verge of breaking down, and at times she cries; she misses her mother; she curls up in a car seat in exhaustion. She comes across as a real person with real vulnerabilities, not some saintly, idealized victim.
The film poignantly reveals a frequent disconnect between the urgency of Murad’s mission and the sluggishness with which policymakers act. A Canadian member of Parliament, though moved to tears by Murad’s testimony, admits that the bureaucracy of her country’s refugee resettlement system has failed the Yazidis. Her parting gift to Murad is a medallion of a maple leaf — a well-intentioned yet ultimately meaningless token.
Interspersed with Bombach’s vérité footage are moments when Murad addresses the camera, reflecting on her life and work. In measured tones, she speaks in her native Kurdish about how she would have preferred not to have had this fame, wishing the world knew her by her previous identity: a student in her village whose dream was to open a beauty salon. She laments that the media often asks the wrong questions, pruriently asking her to recount her rapes instead of focusing on what can be done to help the Yazidis.
There is little explanation of how Murad escaped ISIS and was later thrust into the spotlight as a spokesperson, which would have lent more context to her experience. The film also assumes viewers have a certain level of familiarity with the Islamic State’s takeover of northern Iraq and with who the Yazidis are.
Those quibbles aside, “On Her Shoulders” is a moving, sensitive portrayal of a woman — and a people’s — perseverance. Although Murad’s hometown has been liberated, the Yazidis’ struggle to rebuild their homeland continues.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains descriptions of sexual violence. In English, Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles. 95 minutes.