As 2018 comes to a close, Yazidi human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad continues her relentless efforts advocating for her people, an ethnic minority in Iraq targeted for annihilation by ISIS. She has been aided in that campaign not only by earning the Nobel Prize but by the acclaimed documentary On Her Shoulders, a film about Murad that demonstrates in telling detail just what it can take to compel the world to action.
Alexandria Bombach directed and Hayley Pappas produced the film that last week made the Documentary Feature Oscar shortlist. On Her Shoulders is a production of RYOT Films, a company known for character-driven stories that bring attention to humanitarian crises across the globe (another of RYOT’s films, Lifeboat, just made the Oscar shortlist for documentary shorts).
“Early summer of 2016 we approached Nadia’s team about doing a documentary,” Pappas tells Deadline. “They responded incredibly receptively, and we called Alexandria right away. She was our first pick [as director]. So from that point forward, it was really just a sprint getting on this. There was very little pre-production. We were just moving as quickly as we could to follow Nadia and her story.”
Murad’s story is one of almost unimaginable tragedy and perseverance. In 2014 ISIS forces overran her village in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq. Her mother and six of her brothers were killed. Murad and many other young Yazidi women were taken captive and traded among ISIS fighters as sexual slaves. She eventually escaped and later, while living in a refugee camp in Iraq, began to share details of what she had endured.
On Her Shoulders illuminates the fraught path Murad navigated, through media and diplomatic circles, to try to get the public and political leaders to care about the fate of the Yazidis. She and her advisers were obliged to cautiously weigh everything from the words she chose to what she wore as she engaged with journalists and appeared before the UN.
“The big things that struck me was just how much of a marketing campaign it was and how much strategy had to be [discussed] about where she spoke and what she said,” Bombach recalls. “She had to walk a tightrope of making sure none of her work, and still today I’m sure, is politicized.”
Bombach documented the invasive approach many reporters took when they interviewed Murad.
“What was especially shocking is the kinds of questions they were asking, specifically about the rapes that she experienced and how many and when they happened and specific details about the ISIS members and the death of her family and things like that that I just felt went on too long,” Bombach observes. “It really made me pull back and think about just how much journalism today is focused on sensationalism and also this gawking at trauma.”
The media attention turned Murad into something of a celebrity, triggering its own dynamic.
“So many people were just wanting to take pieces of her every day, whether it was interviews or her testimony or meetings or hugs and just trying to take photos with her and all of these different things,” the director recalls. “I had a mic on Nadia for a lot of the time and I was on a long lens, so I was hearing what people were saying to her. Sometimes I wanted to push those people away from her. She never reacted in a way where she seemed frustrated or angry or upset with anyone. She was just so consistently gracious and patient with everyone.”
Witnessing that spectacle informed the parameters of the film.
“I made a conscious choice to not focus on anything to do with her captivity or escape and just focus on the work she’s doing now,” Bombach states, “trying to tell a story of what this experience was like within this campaign.”
The campaign continues with Nadia’s Initiative, a nonprofit “dedicated to advocating for victims of sexual violence and rebuilding communities in crisis.” It aims to challenge “world leaders to push past the status quo and assume a responsibility to act–to make ‘never again’ a reality, not an empty promise. Words without action is benign neglect.”
Pappas, the film’s producer, underscores the importance of that concept.
“What I feel Alexandria so gracefully portrayed in the film is, ‘What is the point of awareness without action?’” Pappas says. “We hope the film leaves viewers with…just a reflection of what does it take to get the world’s attention? Then once we do pay attention, what sort of responsibility do all of us have as civilians to do something with that?”
The Nadia’s Initiative website says Murad is donating 100-percent of her prize money from the Nobel award to the Sinjar Action Fund. That will help clear landmines from the area where she grew up, and to allow Yazidis dispersed during the genocide to return to their homes. The cause was furthered by a gift from Bombach, who donated the $25,000 prize she won for earning Best Documentary at the Heartland Film Festival.
Bombach also won a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival for On Her Shoulders. She confesses the plaudits have left her somewhat ambivalent.
“It was an incredible honor, of course,” she says of the Sundance recognition. “It’s hard to even speak about because I don’t want to sound ungrateful but in this whole scheme of things it feels very strange. I wish I would have never met Nadia. I wish none of this would have ever happened. It’s very weird to win an award for something that you just feel so desperately sad about.”