Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Murad’s life is a dizzying array of exhausting undertakings — from giving testimony before the U.N. about her own personal ordeals at the hands of ISIS to visiting countless refugee camps to scheduling one-on-one meetings with top government officials around the world. With deep compassion and a precision and elegance that matches Nadia’s calm demeanor, filmmaker Alexandria Bombach follows this strong-willed young woman, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaped the hands of ISIS to become a relentless beacon of hope for her people, even when at times she longs to lay aside this monumental burden and simply have an ordinary life.
Earlier this month, now 25-year-old Nadia became the first Iraqi ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It was jointly awarded to her and Congolese surgeon, Dennis Mukwege, for their work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in armed conflict. The Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that “each of them in their own way have helped to give greater visibility to wartime sexual violence so that the perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions.” Nadia Murad has also won the Vaclav Havel Award for Human Rights and was the United Nations’ First Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. I sat down with Alexandria Bombach to discuss On Her Shoulders, her inspiring documentary about Nadia for which she won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Danny Miller: This is such a remarkable film. I’m ashamed to say that I knew next to nothing about the Yazidi people or the attacks on them by ISIS. This is such a compelling, intimate portrait of Nadia and her work. When you first started making the film, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the documentary to convey?
Alexandria Bombach: I didn’t go into the film with a lot of preconceived notions of what I was going to do. I had no idea what it was going to be like to be with someone who had been through such a traumatic experience or what her behind-the-scenes advocacy was going to look like. I just wanted to do something that was more nuanced and personal than the usual media coverage she gets that focuses only on what happened to her. I knew that we had kind of an unprecedented access into her world where most media was coming in for just a few hours so I felt a lot of responsibility to bring more nuance to the conversation.
Did Nadia express any reluctance about being the subject of a feature-length film?
No. She’s really smart and she was going through such a bigger experience that was laden with survivor’s guilt. She understands the importance of her role but is also conflicted and exhausted by it. I watched her have to repeat her story over and over again and saw it take a piece out of her every time she did it.
I was moved to tears throughout the film but for some reason the most moving moment to me was when she was sitting with that little boy at the Yazidi refugee camp and he started singing that song he wrote about what happened to his family. You can see her trying not to break down but she just can’t help it, I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Because she clearly has such resolve in her work to keep her emotions in check, every tear seems to have that much more meaning as well as every well-deserved smile.
I’m really glad to hear that you felt that way. That was a big part of how I approach storytelling — to help people feel those emotions, the emotions I felt watching her, too. I was very sensitive to every single thing she did or said and that kind of interaction she had with others. I kept it together while we were shooting the film but watching it countless times during the editing process, there are certain moments that get me every time.
The responsibility she must feel on her shoulders is so huge. I wonder if she ever thinks, “I just can’t do this anymore.” It must be horrible to have to repeat her own story over and over again and yet I guess she knows that this is what people will listen to.
She does. Although part of the point in making this film was my hope that audiences start questioning why we’re doing that and questioning our over-simplification of such stories. For example, people are always bringing up Malala and Nadia in the same breath. It’s part of our narrative of women in that part of the world.
Yeah, I admit I thought of Malala, too, even though their stories and lives are very different. Of course, both are amazing representatives of certain inhumanities taking place around the world.
Yes, each of them in their own right, of course. I’m just saying that we all need to do some critical thinking in our role as observers. Why do people always want to know the gory details of Nadia’s rapes. Why is that so important? I just want us to think about how we view these stories and what we put onto these people.
I love that moment in the film when Nadia says, “Here’s what I wish people were asking me less.” She’s amazingly patient with all the people she has to deal with.
There’s this narrative that we’ve created for women from the Middle East. We hold them up on pedestals and talk about how strong and resilient they are. I think that can be really problematic even though Nadia, of course, is very strong and resilient. But I think the simplification of survivors in that way comes with its own problems. The things that were overwhelming for me to witness from Nadia was her grace and her patience because I don’t know how anybody else could have done what she did. She had to put up with so many weird and awkward things in telling her story over and over again all the while worrying that nobody’s doing anything and nobody really cares. I hated witnessing people being weird around Nadia, I just wanted to jump out of my skin, and yet she was always so incredibly patient with everyone and never rude, no matter what they said to her.
I thought that watching the film, too. You never see even the hint of the kind of eyerolls at some of ways that people act around her that I know I would have been doing in those situations.
Never. I remember this one time a woman came up to her at the U.N. and thought that the Yazidis were Syrians and she was saying that she had a program for helping Syrian people. Nadia tried to explain but it took her a long time of listening very graciously for her to tell this woman that the majority of Yazidis are elsewhere. And the woman was like, “Oh, well, we don’t have a program for that.” It was a very awkward moment and as soon as she walked away, anyone else would have been a little frustrated but Nadia just said, “Oh, those poor Syrians.” Nadia is just a phenomenal human being. But most people are interested primarily in her captivity and escape. I really want us to look at ourselves ask why we are having this woman go through this pain over and over again.
And yet, as she says in the film, she knows that she has to.
Right. But it is time for us to start thinking more critically about the whole process of advocacy and how we package stories of trauma. I’m glad that since we made the film, Nadia has made a conscious choice to think very critically about who she gets involved with, whether it’s an interview or a meeting or whatever. When we were making the film she would talk to anyone but now she’s much more selective which I think is way better for her and also more productive.
Looking at the plight of the Yazidis since you made the film, are you hopeful about their situation? Do you think the awareness that films like this bring about helps their cause?
I actually don’t. I’m less concerned about the general public knowing about the Yazidis and more concerned about people who do know about them doing something to help them. There’s such a hornet’s nest full of stuff related to this issue. And there are still Yazidi women in captivity.
I’m surprised to hear you say that you don’t think public awareness is that important. I know my ears are permanently open now to what’s happening with the Yazidis where they definitely weren’t before. Don’t you think that things like your film that put a spotlight on that community play some role in moving that situation forward?
I don’t think so. It’s really a lengthy political process. If Nadia can’t do it, this film sure can’t. I don’t mean to sound negative. I’m happy that people are moved by this story. It’s just that when I think of “awareness” in my role as a documentary filmmaker, it’s a word that makes me cringe because it’s something that seems to forgive all sins and something that we tend to hide behind. I think of the ways that we treat women in the Middle East since 9/11 and how we’re hiding behind these stories of these strong women to forgive ourselves for all the things that we’re not doing.
Wow, that’s so interesting, especially coming from the person who made this film.
I mean, it’s great if people become more aware of the Yazidis, don’t get me wrong, but will that alone help them? The thing I hope my film does do, though, is help us look at how our apathy and empathy work with these stories and again, enables us be more critical of what we want from our storytelling and our consciousness of the world. It’s about doing the work more than just being “aware” of something.
I understand that. And the dangers of documentaries making people “aware” of troubling things if that’s all there is to it. Let’s give that documentary an award so we can all feel good about ourselves!
Exactly. I’ve found the awards I’ve received for this film problematic for that very reason. It feels very strange.
And speaking of those insanities in our culture, I was so impressed by Amal Clooney in this film but after seeing what she actually does for a living, it brought home even more the ridiculous circus she must live with on a daily basis as the wife of such a huge movie star.
She’s really brilliant and she knows how to handle that kind of attention, it was great to see. But it’s true that the same reasons why people don’t care about the Yazidis is the same reason that Amal is so helpful for the cause. I’m so thankful that Amal exists and is so passionate and her team is doing great work on these justice issues, but looking at it from a storytelling perspective and seeing how much attention she gets because of who she is, it really is depressing. At the same time, as I said, she knows how to navigate it and transition the conversation with journalists and the public to much more important issues than who she’s married to or what she’s wearing.
Is Nadia at all self-conscious watching herself on screen?
No. She saw the film before our premiere at Sundance and thought the film was very powerful. I think she was surprised because she’s so used to being disappointed with the content that’s written about her. The fact that this hit a little deeper and included other Yazidis and the work that they are doing was important to her. She was also really thankful for the title which meant a lot to me since I had to fight not to call the film Nadia. She understood exactly why that would have been the wrong title for this film.
Do you read the press that the film gets?
Some of it. People don’t always have the time to think very critically about this stuff and I don’t get to have a one-on-one conversation with everyone so there’s a lot of press that comes out that goes right into the narrative comparing Nadia to Malala. But there’s a lot of press that has gotten it right and it’s gratifying to see the conversations that are happening.