SXSW Film Review – On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders has an important figure and issue to discuss but fails completely to get that across. Nadia Murad is a twenty-three year old Yazidi from Iraq whose village was taken over by ISIS, resulting in most of the men being killed including those in her family. She and her female relatives were kept as sex slaves till she escaped, and now she is trying to bring awareness about what is happening to her people, both in Iraq and among the refugees.

Things do not start well when very minor details are ignored. For example, we know that Nadia Murad is a Yazidi and that ISIS is trying to wipe these people out yet the film never actually says what a Yazidi is. We hear one news report that says they are not Muslim, but are they an ethnic or cultural group? What do they believe? How many are there and why is ISIS after them? Very basic questions that would have given us some context. So okay, that fact is skipped. Well, what about Nadia Murad herself? We see a lot of clips of the many radio and TV shows where she tells her story. Yet we never hear that story. We do not know what happened in the ISIS camps, so yeah, that may have been really intense but we also never get to hear about how she escaped, where she went, or how her journey started. We do have a scene after one interviewer has asked about her experience and she says she wishes they wouldn’t ask about that but rather about what is happening now with the people who didn’t escape and what can be done for the people in the camps. Okay, so tell us! But no, we move on to her going to different government buildings where she talks to a few people or they talk to her about how brave she is and what they are trying to do. Which also begs the question, what does she want them to do? She wants what has happened to be listed as genocide but what actions should that entail?

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They start to answer that with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney joining with Nadia to bring criminal charges against ISIS in addition to the military actions that are being taken. Amal has a great screen presence. She is smart, articulate, and she has passion. This is great! I can’t wait to hear about the process to do that and what the implications are on an international stage. But the movie has already left her and we don’t see her again until she is by Nadia’s side at the U.N. meeting. What? Instead we next see Nadia in a store buying toys for refugees for a good three minutes, and then cooking with her friends. There are way too many scenes of nothing happening where Nadia Murad is just sitting around, or we see her and her entourage looking at the city they happen to be in. One scene that really stands out is when she is sitting outside at night, and I thought, wow, this is boring. Then she yawned. It was like even she knew this was dull and shouldn’t have been in this movie.

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We move on to her meeting Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. He states that ISIS has started genocide against the Yazidi and Europe is finishing it by separating them when they are being placed within Europe. There is some harsh language that seems over the top but surely they will back this up with some interesting discussions about the immigration issues of Europe, and how they are having trouble with all the people and why some are being separated, others are in camps and … the movie has already left this topic, never to talk about it again. Okay, well, now we are hearing from Nadia’s number two man about how hard this is for her and but that she has the strength it takes to do this, and that ISIS has been making threats on her life. Wow, so what are those threats? What safety precautions are being taken? And now we are at the U. N. meeting. Starting to see a pattern here?

What is worse is that the after credits of the movie is where we find out some important information about her hometown that could have been a really touching and interesting moment about her life but is instead treated as an afterthought! The fundamental flaw here is that director Alexandria Bombach seems to think the tragedy speaks for itself and never gives more of a context. She appears so enamored with her subject that she thinks just having the camera on her even when nothing is happening is still exciting. Wanting to raise awareness is one thing, making a compelling narrative is something else, and the film never gets there.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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