On Her Shoulders review – the heartbreaking life of Nadia Murad, survivor of genocide

This arresting documentary critiques the limits to western compassion as it follows the Iraqi activist and Isis rape survivor on her lonely human rights pilgrimage

Alexandria Bombach’s arresting documentary raises a significant question: has our compassion on international human rights become Malala-ised? Are the west’s media and political classes able to focus their concern only when they are gallantly scandalised by the ordeal of a young woman, such as Malala Yousafzai (shot by the Taliban in revenge for campaigning for women’s education) or Nadia Murad, the heroine of this film? If so, it is putting an intolerable strain on these women, being idolised and endlessly scrutinised and asked to be the redemptive symbols of our own well-intentioned compassion.

Murad is a remarkable young Iraqi woman from the Yazidi ethnic community who survived being kidnapped, beaten and repeatedly raped by Islamic State in the course of its genocidal slaughter in 2014, which wiped out much of Murad’s family. She has since become a dignified and eloquent human rights advocate, and this year was the joint winner of the Nobel peace prize.

The film shows her new life of campaigning, a kind of exiled vocational statelessness – in the UN in New York, in Canada, in Germany – making speeches, attending formal events and seminars, listening courteously to interpreters, suppressing tears and enduring unimaginably crass and clumsy questioning about her experiences from TV and radio hosts. She is accompanied and protected by Murad Ismael, the director of the Yazidi charity Yazda, who is himself often on the verge of tears, and at one stage says he cannot translate a certain question for her because it is too upsetting.

Nadia’s other great ally is Amal Clooney, who speaks passionately in the UN about bringing terrorists and criminals to justice. Nadia is shown always surrounded by crowds, almost crushed by them. But her utter loneliness is heartbreaking.

Watch the trailer for On Her Shoulders


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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