On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders

One of the most difficult film viewing experiences you’ll have this year

What is the personal cost of activism, if it means endlessly reliving past traumas in order to shine a light on the horrors still being faced by thousands? Alexandria Bombach’s challenging documentary On Her Shoulders is already a harrowing proposition due to the nature of its subject, Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad, who was kept as a sex slave for three months after being kidnapped by ISIS. If Bombach’s film were to merely re-establish this information, discussing the abuse she suffered and how this led her to become an internationally renowned human rights activist, it would still be a worthwhile achievement.

However, On Her Shoulders is a more significant work due to how it balances an account of Nadia’s courageous transition from slave to activist with a direct interrogation of the audience, and our desire to hear about real life horrors from a place of privilege. Is our need to hear accounts of the horrors Nadia suffered an endless detriment to her mental wellbeing, a form of emotional torture that locks her permanently in the three months she was held captive? The documentary doesn’t have any easily discernible answers, probing at the consequences of audience curiosity for tragedy they will never have to experience, all while realising how it’s only through discussing her experiences as a sex slave that can directly help thousands of young girls who remain held in captivity. It’s a morally complicated and endlessly fascinating manner in which to turn a wide ranging documentary into an intimate, insular character study.

On Her Shoulders

Bombach successfully manages to capture the emotional toll reliving these experiences is having on her subject without becoming intrusive or exploitative – her camera lingers in the background as we see Nadia become increasingly numbed by interview junkets, or at her general bewilderment at various western celebrations. A prolonged sequence at a Canadian tourist attraction may seem irrelevant to the central narrative, and yet Bombach’s tight focus on her subject’s empty expression during a moment of joy effectively conveys the draining experience of being forced back into captivity for the purpose of raising awareness of her cause. She’s forfeited any chance of experiencing even fleeting happiness in order to help those who haven’t been able to escape like she did – and her mental state is laid bare onscreen, treated with a genuine empathy that contrasts with the interview sequences we see. There, hosts clearly have compassion for Nadia, but don’t have any reservations about forcing her into reliving uncomfortable memories for the sake of a juicy human interest story.

The recurring sight of Nadia crying is a haunting one that I’ll struggle to shake; instead of finding peace in the west, she’s made herself the figurehead of a human rights movement that demands paradoxical things of her. Everybody from journalists to UN representatives are eager to hear accounts of the hell she’s suffered through, and yet at a later rally, she is told she is also required for her to “stay strong” and not publicly show the toll this is having on her. The argument is her strength could inspire others in similar situations – but at what cost to her own mental health? On Her Shoulders is a remarkable examination of what the public craves from human rights activists to pay attention, and the effects this can have on an individual thrown into the spotlight only to discuss the torture they faced. It asks questions of the audience that will leave you uncomfortable – but are an effective way of reframing the conversation on this subject, without proving detrimental the sheer importance of Nadia’s cause.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

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