“On Her Shoulders” takes viewers behind the scenes of being a reluctant activist
Nadia Murad is often quiet and pensive, but the world that she has been thrust into is not. After her escape from being a sex slave for the terrorist group ISIS, the 23-year-old earned fame through her sorrow.
The Sundance documentary “On Her Shoulders” tells the story of Murad, who was a witness to the genocide of her home and community in northern Iraq in 2014. But the film is not simply about giving a voice to the young woman’s story. It peels back the curtains of the life of a reluctant activist.
Alexandria Bombach, the director of the film, said that she wanted the film to reflect how it feels to be around Murad and observe the realities of her new life.
“We wanted this world to feel almost like a memory,” she said, “because it’s not just one moment. This is a living memory for Nadia, and I think that’s what I wanted to get across.”
Bombach said that the editing style, which includes elements such as overlapping voices, and the music helped create that mood.
As the director, editor and almost everything else for the film, Bombach said that it was crazy to do all of the jobs, but it benefited her in the end. She said that it was easier to learn Murad’s story herself and explain it through film rather than convey her vision to someone else with words.
“This is such an intimate film,” she said. “A lot of these emotions — I don’t know if I could have described them well enough to another editor.”
She also liked having a small film crew, since she did not want to add to the paparazzi-esque scene that is near constant in Murad’s life, as reflected in the opening scene.
In fact, seeing how taxing the media was on Murad was difficult for Bombach. Before starting filming, all she had seen was Murad on the podium confidently telling her story. Then, Bombach saw how each interview took a piece of her.
“This film more than any other film made me question everything about who I am as a person,” she said. “It was very hard every day to try and ask her to put a mic on. There were times when I wouldn’t even ask.”
Murad mentions during the film that some questions journalists ask should not be asked, and Bombach said that she did not want Murad to associate her with those kinds of people.
But at the same time, both Bombach and Murad knew that it was important to tell the story of the genocide of the Yazidi people in Iraq.
Bombach, who is from New Mexico, said she loves finding and telling the true story behind storytellers, which she did in her first major documentary about Afghan photojournalists, “Frame by Frame,” in 2015. Now that she has the opportunity to share Murad’s story at the Sundance Film Festival, Bombach said she is “thrilled, honored and a little bit in disbelief.”
She said that the title, “On Her Shoulders,” was used to not only show that Murad has a lot of weight on her shoulders, but have viewers think critically about why that weight is there. Unlike documentaries that are a call to action or about a social cause, there is little any single viewer can do because the problem involves major global issues.
Instead, Bombach said, she wants viewers to enter the theater and just be with Murad.
“When people leave, they realize it is a film about ourselves and where we are with empathy,” she said.
“On Her Shoulders,” an entry in the Sundance U.S. Documentary Film Competition, is scheduled to screen at the following times and locations:
Saturday, Jan. 20, 12:30 p.m. at The Ray
Sunday, Jan. 2, 3:00 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theater
Monday, Jan. 22, 11:30 a.m. at Redstone Cinema 7
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 6:00 p.m. at Sundance Mountain Resort, Provo
Thursday, Jan. 25, 7:00 p.m. at Metropolitan Holiday Village 4 Cinemas
Saturday, Jan. 27, 12:30 p.m. at The Ray
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Daniel Thurston is Park City Library’s new Spanish services librarian.