By now, millions of people will have heard the name of the young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad, who was the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize alongside Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege. The Prize recognized Murad, a 25-year-old survivor of captivity and sexual violence at the hands of the Islamic State, for her campaign to expose IS brutalities and end the use of rape as a weapon of war. After escaping her captors in 2014, she become a champion for the rights of women and the Yazidi people, bringing the plight of a little-known ethnic minority to the attention of world leaders and the global media. Today, her name might be mentioned in the same breath as other well-known female activists such as Malala Yousafzai.
Yet the Murad portrayed in the new, Sundance-acclaimed film, On Her Shoulders, is one who holds her fame loosely, even skeptically. While her moving testimonies often elicit tears, Murad reflects that the myriad expressions of pity, outrage, or admiration from Western audiences are rarely accompanied by real action. “I want people to know what I’m doing, but I want them to know it’s not a job,” says Murad in an interview cut alongside shots of the young woman slipping through adoring crowds and testifying before the United Nations. “I want them to know it’s a request for help.” Yet that help, as the film unfolds, is painfully slow and scarce in coming, as is admission of Western responsibility for the trauma of the Yazidis, and the region writ large. In this way, On Her Shoulders is in many ways a film about the West, and Western treatment of the trauma wrought by far-flung wars.
These complexities are intrinsic to Murad’s story, and her success as an advocate for her cause. By shunning the shame that often surrounds issues of sexual violence, and by being willing to talk about her experience, Murad was able to draw attention to the plight of thousands like her. The film resounds with B-roll clips of international media lauding Murad’s courage, a reputation predicated on her decision to perform her suffering for the watching world. On Her Shoulders follows Murad through radio studios, press conferences, and parliaments, as she unflinchingly answers repeated questions about her rape, the destruction of her community, and the loss of her family. (She is even, at times, left comforting her hosts, who break down at the horror of Murad’s story.)
Yet the beauty of On Her Shoulders is in the moments that come next—off air, when Murad’s exhaustion and still-raw grief are visible, if only briefly. Without complaining, Murad reflects that the media seem too often fixed on the personal, lurid details of her serial rapes, and less willing to engage the larger implications of her story. Rather than asking her, over and over, to recount her own suffering, she says, “The things I want to be asked are: What is the fate of [the other] girls? What is the fate of my people in Kurdistan and Sinjar Mountain? What must be done so Yazidis can have their rights? What must be done so a woman will not be a victim of war?”
To her credit, director Alexandria Bombach deliberately refrains from including any explicit descriptions of Murad’s trauma. By eschewing these details, Bombach’s film may leave audiences wanting “more”—but she hopes this will lead viewers to question their more voyeuristic impulses. “I never asked her details about her captivity or genocide, on purpose,” Bombach said in an interview with The Nation. “In the film I really wanted people to question why we feel the need to know those things, to question our need to gawk at facts. I saw her telling her story over and over, and it was often sensationalized. I didn’t want to do that in the film, too.” Instead, Bombach focuses on the behind-the-scenes efforts of Murad and her small, dedicated team to practice and perfect her message as they crisscross Europe, Canada, and the United States. “I think they were surprised, and happy, that I captured those small moments,” said Bombach. “It’s an incredible amount of work that they do, and it seldom gets recognized.”
When appearing before crowds of fellow Yazidis, however, the carefully poised Murad is transformed. Speaking to the mostly refugee gatherings, her grief becomes palpable, mingling with the collective pain of her community. While urging them to be resilient, she also confesses that she shares their existential fear: that Yazidis, ravaged and now dispersed among refugee camps in Europe and beyond, will cease to exist as a people. “We escaped the Arab world because a genocide was happening,” pleads one Yazidi man in a Greek camp. “We came here to Europe and it’s like another genocide…. we will lose each other. We will go extinct.” Amid her people, Murad openly embraces women and children, often sharing tears. In these moments, the heroic celebrity recedes, and she is, like the rest of her people, haunted and uncertain.
In this way, the title, On Her Shoulders, is deeply fitting. Throughout the film, we see the burden on Murad’s slim shoulders grow: First, she sets out to expose ISIS crimes and to advocate for her fellow prisoners. Her message soon expands to encompass the broader issue of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Yet as she travels to meet Yazidis in the far-flung diaspora, her mission grows further: to garner recognition for the Yazidi people, their genocide, and the need to preserve their way of life in the face of displacement. In all this, the young woman shoulders the burden bravely.
Yet the seams of her weariness do show at times, to the dismay of those around her. “Although she is the strongest person I have ever seen,” frets Murad Ismael, her companion and confidant, “I don’t know how much strength she has left.” Bombach points out that there is often an untenable burden placed on celebrity survivors, particularly those hailing from the non-Western world. “I’m trying to point out the problematic parts of putting female survivors on pedestals, especially when all we offer them are accolades and awards instead of real policy.” She adds, “We need to be thinking about how we’re packaging trauma and making heroes out of victims, and then reflect on what we’re doing in the Middle East.”
Even so, Murad and her colleagues continue to call the world’s attention to the plight of the Yazidis, and her platform grows. In 2016, she was appointed the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. She garners the support of prominent lawyer Amal Clooney and Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who aid her in raising her cause in the global arena. She gives the opening address at the UN General Assembly in 2016. She launches a nonprofit, Nadia’s Initiative, to further advocacy and recovery for her people. She publishes her memoir, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
Yet in her heart, Murad says, she considers her work incomplete. The vast majority of the global Yazidi population still live in diaspora as refugees, while their native land in Iraq remains in ruins. Sexual violence as a weapon of war is still rampant around the world. “I’ll see myself as a person of worth on the day when terrorists are brought to justice,” she says at the close of On Her Shoulders. Months later, upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, she reiterated this point. “We must not only imagine a better future for women, children, and persecuted minorities, we must work consistently to make it happen—prioritizing humanity, not war.”