Human Rights Watch Fest opener 'On Her Shoulders' focuses on a brave Yazidi activist

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Nadia Murad Basee Taha was a 21-year-old student in Kocho, in the Sinjar province of Iraq, on August 3, 2014, when ISIS terrorists attacked the Yazidi town. They killed hundreds of people in a matter of hours. Eighteen members of Nadia’s family were slaughtered, including her mother and six brothers. For three months, she was raped by soldiers and sold into sexual slavery. In Alexandria Bombach’s excellent documentary On Her Shoulders, she is seen testifying at the United Nations, visiting refugee camps, and speaking to a small Yazidi community in Nebraska. The young woman, who everyone addresses by her first name, also speaks directly to the camera—in one particularly moving segment about the questions she wishes she would be asked by journalists.

On Her Shoulders was the opening-night film at Human Rights Watch Film Festival, now underway at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York City.

The Yazidi are a religious and cultural minority group who live in Northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Some scholarly sources refer to them as ethnic Kurds, although the Yazidi dispute this claim. Like Nadia, whose native language is Kurmanji, the Yazidi speak different dialects of Kurdish. For centuries, they have endured genocidal attacks, especially in the Muslim world where they are thought of as devil worshipers. Yazidis are practitioners of a syncretic faith (one that includes several religious traditions) in which angels play a major role in belief and storytelling. They are reviled by Muslim extremists who mistakenly interpret a Yazidi tale of the “fallen angel,” Taûsi Melek, as an instance of heresy; the angel argued with God, but in the end was forgiven by him.

This racism is what fuels the sex trade in which ISIS is engaged: Nadia, and the hundreds of women and girls from her village who are still missing, are deemed spoils of war. As Bombach’s documentary demonstrates, sexual enslavement is well known, underreported, and rarely acknowledged in anti-terrorist strategies and campaigns. On Her Shoulders also illustrates the effect of Nadia’s willingness to speak publicly about the nature of her victimization. Rape as an instrument of war is a crime recognized by the International Criminal Court, and Nadia’s testimony underlines its significance; not since the Bosnian conflict has it been part of the global debate over ways to halt Muslim extremism.

Her confessions also defy the stigma of rape and sexual slavery, and in Nadia’s expressions of kinship to the world’s 60 million refugees, many of them victims of trafficking, ethnic cleansing and genocide, she calls attention to a diaspora the proportions of which have not been seen since World War II. Bombach’s inclusion of Nadia’s three-hour lunch with a former justice of the ICC underlines how her advocacy must shift to an articulation of solutions to the Yazidi predicament. At that point, the Yazidi of Sinjar province had been displaced to refugee camps in Turkey. Some had emigrated to Europe and the U.S., but as the former justice points out, the relocation of small numbers of Yazidi, members of an ancient, cohesive culture that frowns upon mixed marriages, “is another genocide,” yet return in the wake of war was impossible.

Since then, Yazidi communities have reclaimed their homeland. In a brief conversation with Nadia’s translator and confidante, Murad Ismael, who appears in the documentary, he emphasizes that despite this return, the desperate struggle of the Yazidi has not subsided. A representative of Yazad, the group that funds Nadia’s advocacy, Ismael explains the group’s current efforts: “We are considering long-term and short-term solutions as we want to address the immediate effects of the genocide, but also how to reestablish Yazidi communities.” Ismael is working with the Iraqi government to resolve the challenges of resettlement. “Another important part of our work is providing medical education and schooling,” he says, “but also documentation of the atrocities.”

The meeting with the ICC judge is one of the most sobering moments in On Her Shoulders, largely underplayed, as is Bombach’s style throughout. It is also a rare instance in which Nadia seems not to be engaged, but in a telephone conversation with Bombach after the HRWFF opening night, she explains that the judge speaks neither English, nor Nadia’s Kurdish dialect. “Nadia is one of the sharpest people I know,” she says, “and even when she did not understand the language, she was often very much quietly in charge.” Indeed, Nadia often seems to stand apart in the documentary, fearless and burdened by grief. Her modesty in private moments is disarming; each time she speaks in public, she seems to summon some part of herself that even she finds surprising. She says in one of her addresses to the United Nations that she was not raised to speak to such an audience. She tells Bombach that all she wanted a few years ago was to open a beauty shop in her village.

Bombach’s respectful distance from her subject allows the audience to see in a way that one does watching a Robert Bresson film; in the slowly unfolding narrative, stripped of drama but not of emotion, Nadia’s spirit emerges. The filmmaker’s stance also results in profound and intimate testimony direct-to-camera. “Others always comment on my access, but actually it was just Nadia,” she says. “People speak about her strength and resilience, but two qualities of Nadia’s blew me away—her graciousness and her patience. She was never cross with anyone.” At one point, Nadia explains how she feels when asked to disclose the smallest details of her sexual slavery. She wishes that instead of such questions, journalists would ask her about the women and girls still being traded and raped.