Film Review: On Her Shoulders
By Belle McIntyre
This extraordinarily powerful and intensely moving documentary is so worthwhile for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s subject, 23 year old Nadia Murad Basee Taha, was the most recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, after the film was finished. This is her story as a reluctant activist, as a result of her horrific experience at the hands of ISIS. Nadia is a member of the Yazidi, an ethnic minority living primarily in Iraq. The singling out of the Yazidi people by ISIS in 2014 when they began a program which can only be described as genocide, isolating them and cutting off supplies so that they were starving on a mountaintop, made headlines at the time. This was probably the first time the majority of the world had ever heard of the Yazidi people. They have been irrationally and systematically victimized in a similar fashion to the Kurds. At that time, they swept into her village and killed seven hundred and captured all the girls over the age of nine years old. Nadia was one of 6,500 women and children forced into sexual slavery by ISIS.
Nadia managed to escape after three months and was smuggled out of ISIS territory and eventually found her way to Germany where she was one of 1000 who were part of a refugee aid program. She had been chosen because of her eloquent testimony to a Belgian newspaper, which brought attention to this dire situation. Unwilling and unable to concentrate on rebuilding her own life while so many thousands were still in conditions that she knew only too well, she has been compelled to do whatever she can to try to help. The focus of this film is primarily on the toll this continues to take on this young village girl as she campaigns against overwhelming odds to anyone who will listen.
She is clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight and speaks quietly and calmly, with only occasional moments of painful emotion coming through. She does not dramatize. It is not necessary. Her fervor and straightforwardness are registered indelibly through her eyes which reveal deep wells of sorrow, pain and compassion. One cannot help but be moved by her as she speaks before Parliament in Canada, the UN Security Council, in Berlin in 2016 on the second anniversary of the genocide. Largely, on account of her voice, she has been heard by the likes of Samantha Power, whose life work has been to end genocide, and Amal Clooney, who has taken her cause to heart and is bringing ISIS up to the International Criminal Court, for human trafficking and genocide. In 2016, she was named the first Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees and Human Trafficking Victims by the United Nations. She also announced Nadia’s Initiative, an organization providing advocacy and assistance to victims of genocide. She has also met the Pope regarding protections for religious minorities.
None of this is easy or natural for her and it takes a terrible toll. The pain is never far beneath the surface. And yet she presses on. In between all of her high visibility meetings and speeches she visits refugees wherever they are and it refuels her indomitable drive to keep up the fight. The director has done an extraordinary job of not being exploitive of her and includes some welcome clips of Nadia enjoying some simple off-duty pleasures like shopping and visiting a beauty parlor (something she aspired to in her pre-ISIS life). She is so thoroughly natural and genuine that she will break your heart. She is the next Malala for our time and you will be inspired to know about this phenomenal humanitarian. And she just may be able to make a difference since she never takes her eye off the goal of a better world without victims and refugees.
You can watch a trailer for the film here.