Festivals like Sundance offer many films about activism and politics and human rights, but Alexandria Bombach’s documentary On Her Shoulders feels decidedly different. Bombach chronicles the efforts of Nadia Murad, now 23, a young Yazidi woman who at the age of 19 was kept as a sex slave for ISIS after the group took over her village of Kojo in Sinjar, Iraq. Murad travels the world advocating for the cause of the Yazidi people, a relatively small religious minority in the region who number somewhere between 500,000 to a million. Many of them are refugees, stuck in camps; others are still held captive by ISIS. Nadia wants the world not only to act on those fronts, but also to recognize officially that what’s happened to the Yazidis constitutes a genocide.
Wherever she goes, she is welcomed by politicians and ordinary people — people with good intentions and compassion and, in some cases, a genuine desire to act; one of her key allies is Amal Clooney, the high-profile international human rights lawyer. Over and over, Nadia has to describe to others — to politicians, reporters, radio journalists, other activists — the details of her ordeal. We can see it taking a toll. She seems to get smaller and smaller as the film proceeds. In some ways, she’s in an existential trap, like something out of a Greek myth: In order to help her people, she needs to relive her trauma, over and over again.
To Bombach’s credit, the film itself doesn’t indulge that trap. Even though she never loses her focus on Nadia, Bombach subtly shifts her attention from Nadia’s specific requests from the international community to the thornier question of what happens to the Yazidis from here onward. Once other countries take them in, do the Yazidis remain a distinct people of their own? Other, larger groups might be able to survive becoming a diaspora and being divided across multiple continents and countries, but can a group as small as the Yazidis? They fled the Arab world to avoid a genocide, and as Nadia notes in the film, they’re faced with another genocide of sorts in Europe — where their families and what’s left of their communities are separated again, and sent in small groups to live in far-off countries. There are no easy answers to this question. Sinjar is no longer in ISIS’s control, and in the closing moments of the film we see Nadia returning home. She is wailing. And they’re not tears of joy, or catharsis, or exhaustion, or finality; she is in absolute agony. The terror never ends.