Most people who see Alexandria Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders,” about young activist and UN Goodwill Ambassador (and now, Nobel Peace Prize winner) Nadia Murad, have likely never heard of the Yazidi people. Bombach herself hadn’t heard about the small religious group from Northern Iraq until she began making her documentary about Nadia’s quest to bring awareness of the group’s genocide by ISIS in 2014.
At a Q&A after an IDA screening in Los Angeles, Bombach and producer Hayley Pappas, head of RYOT Films, told the audience that the stated intention was to make a short. But Bombach made her first cut in secret — and once Pappas and the team at RYOT saw the feature-length version, they knew she was right.
In August 2014, ISIS fighters invaded the Sinjar region and eventually made their way to Nadia’s village, where they rounded up and killed most of the men and elderly people before holding the women captive as sex slaves. Nadia escaped and was sent to Germany for therapy, where she realized the only way she would be able to heal would not be through talking with a therapist about her own feelings but rather speaking out for the rest of the women in captivity. She soon became the Yazidi people’s most vocal activist, speaking before the U.N. and urging world leaders to acknowledge the genocide and send help.
Bombach and Pappas began filming Nadia in early 2016. The film shows Nadia traveling the world and recounting her rape in detail to journalists in many countries, something that made the director cringe as her subject had to repeat the details over and over again.
“When I saw her go through these interviews, I was shocked,” Bombach said. “Watching her through a long lens go through that really was confronting for me as a storyteller.” It made her wonder why the journalists had to force Nadia to relive her trauma over and over again rather than ask about what she viewed as a solution to the problem. “Why do you need to know how she was raped? Why do you need to know how long she was in captivity? … It’s a strange thing that has happened to our packaging of traumatic stories.”
So while the film gives background on the massacre that Nadia survived, it doesn’t dwell. Instead, it focuses on Nadia as a normal young woman, albeit a perpetually sad one with a seemingly steely demeanor. Bombach viewed this as a purposeful choice lest her fellow displaced survivors, who are mainly living in refugee camps all around Europe, think her mind wasn’t on the plight of her people at all times.
“A lot of the film to me is about the pressures of survivor’s guilt and the effect of that. I saw her laugh a lot more when the camera was turned off, and feel joy, but at the same time it never left her,” Bombach said. “You could always tell that she was thinking about it.”
The film follows Nadia as she speaks in front of the U.N. multiple times, eventually gaining a strong ally in human-rights attorney Amal Clooney, whose high profile and years of experience are helping Nadia in ways she never could have achieved on her own. “She is brilliant,” said Bombach. “She knows what she’s doing and she is probably the best hope that [the Yazidis] have.”
Now, Bombach said, Nadia doesn’t have to talk to every concerned journalist about her experience. She’s only speaking with world leaders and working with the foundation she started, NadiasInitiative.org, to help her people de-mine her home of the Sinjar region in Iraq, which ISIS left completely destroyed.
“She’s not doing these interviews with, like, a college student or anything like that. She’s meeting with presidents and that’s it,” Bombach said. “She’s not coming to screenings. She didn’t even come to Sundance, and I’m very proud of her and thankful that she has that ownership over her life.”
The film, which releases theatrically in mid-October, has Nadia’s endorsement. She thought it was “very powerful” when she watched the film (a nervewracking prospect for Bombach, because Nadia didn’t move or speak the entire time), and is now focused on reconstruction of her home. She knows it’s an uphill battle for people who don’t have a lot of weight in the world.
As for Bombach, “I’m very interested as a filmmaker in stories about storytelling and how we are using apathy or empathy right now in such a critical time.”
The film will open October 19 in NYC, October 24 in LA, and then roll out nationally.
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.