Mountainfilm: Bombach Returns With “On Her Shoulders”

Mountainfilm: Bombach Returns With “On Her Shoulders”

Note: Telluride author Susan Dalton captures Mountainfilm‘s best memories in “Mountainfilm: 40 Years.” Look inside here.


Nadia Murad in “On Her Shoulders,” courtesy The Hollywood Reporter.

“Home is not about soil. It is about soul,” said traveler, writer and returning Mountainfilm 2018 presenter Pico Iyer in a TED Talk.

For award-winning filmmaker Alexandria Bombach, also a returning presenter over Memorial Weekend in Telluride, home is the road.

Since 2010, Bombach has chosen to live nomadically and allegedly becomes confused when people ask her when she thinks she’ll “settle down.” She is happiest when walking across the Outback of Australia with feral camels; swimming in a secret women’s swimming pool in Kabul; or spending hours riding in the bed of a truck with her camera in her lap. As a friend once observed: “You’re a filmmaker like Indiana Jones is a professor.”

A 23 year-old Yazidi woman named Nadia Murad has a very different story. Her home (and that of her people) was destroyed. Home for Murad remains a work-in-process.

Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at around 700,000 people, with the vast majority concentrated in northern Iraq.

An historically misunderstood group, the Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish and have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries, despite many years of oppression and threatened extermination.

The ancient religion is rumored to have been founded by an 11th century

Ummayyad sheikh and is derived from Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian faith founded by a philosopher), also Christianity and Islam. Its derivative nature has often led to the Yazidis being referred to as a sect.

At the core of the Yazidis’ marginalization is their worship of a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel, one of the seven angels that take primacy in their beliefs. Unlike the fall from grace of Satan, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus was forgiven and returned to heaven by God. The importance of Melek Tawwus to the Yazidis has given them an undeserved reputation for being devil-worshippers – a notoriety that, in today’s climate of extremism, turned life-threatening.

In 2014, approximately 700 people in Murad’s small village of Kocho were slaughtered by ISIS, leaving only 15 men alive. Among the massacred were her mother and and six brothers, also members of her extended family. The women, including Murad, were enslaved, and though most have been liberated, their lives remain broken, played out today in refugee camps scattered around Iraq, Greece, and elsewhere.

But instead of giving in and giving up, Murad took a stand. She determined her life’s work was to tell the world what happened.

Her bravery and determination led to Amal Clooney taking up Murad’s cause. The celebrity lawyer helped the young woman take legal action against the terrorists responsible for crimes against humanity. Also to Murad being appointment a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and traveling around the world to ensure that her people and their cause are not forgotten, a painfully lonely, Herculean task for a young woman whose life dream was once to open a beauty salon in her village near the Syrian border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

So now everyday Nadia Murad has to put on a face to meet the faces that she meets.

Bombach and Murad, two for the road.

The paths of these two differently remarkable women intersected when Murad spoke at the U.N. Security Council in 2015. Eight months later, Bombach began following her around, ultimately turning Murad’s harrowing account into a feature-length documentary.

“On Her Shoulders,” a powerful portrait in courage and strength, won the U.S. Doc directing prize at Sundance. It will be screened at Mountainfilm at the end of May.

“It’s one thing to tell a traumatic story, and another to capture how that trauma impacts a life. What makes…’On Her Shoulders’ so powerful — besides the profound dignity of its subject, … is the way she (Bombach) reveals Murad’s distress at having to take on the role of activist. For every time people tell her how strong she is, we see her discomfort with the straightjacketing mantle of campaigner that she knows she must wear to draw attention to her community’s genocide. By exposing the ways public institutions and the media demand an explicit performance of suffering by human-rights spokespeople, Bombach… shows that Murad’s nightmare will never end. It’s this understanding, so rarely addressed or even noticed in most portraits of refugees, that makes Bombach’s film essential viewing,” raved Variety, continuing…

Even among Yazidi communities, and inside the refugee camps, Murad is told that her strength is what keeps everyone going. The burden of responsibility is overwhelming, made even starker when international prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo lays out her future: the young woman needs to hold the Yazidi together and get them through this diaspora, because dividing a small population leads to disintegration. Hearing this makes it all the more maddening when well-meaning people tell her, ‘I know how hard this is, yet when they finish their interviews, the news announcers casually segue into a story about artisanal breweries, or the traffic report. Murad has to live with her story, and recount it, day in, day out.

“Bombach intersperses observational footage in hotels and safe houses, refugee camps and assembly halls, with black-background studio shots where Murad offers an unblinkered, almost challenging gaze, wordlessly telling the camera that we truly don’t know what she’s been through. ‘I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress,’ she tells us, ‘an excellent athlete, an excellent student, an excellent makeup artist, an excellent farmer. I didn’t want people to know me as a victim of Daesh terrorism.’ Enormous credit goes to Bombach for making a film that recognizes what it means when your dreams for a normal future are vaporized, rather than one that pruriently seeks details of the trauma…,” adds Variety.

If there is justice in this world, long on sensationalism, short on compassion from trauma fatigue,  if Amal Clooney, a major supporter and legal advocate for Murad, gets her way, “On Her Shoulders” will go the distance in helping Murad realize her goal of raising awareness about the plight of her people – the movie combined with her recently released memoir, “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State” and endless talking engagements.

“’On Her Shoulders’ does a dutiful job of informing viewers about the Yazidi genocide, but Bombach knows that most viewers are more interested in the sordid details of a horror story than in what they can do to help. Human nature isn’t always very nice. And so, Bombach pointedly denies us the information that we’re craning to hear. You can learn more about Murad — more about the raw data of her misfortunes, anyway — by reading her Wikipedia page than you can by watching this documentary. “I didn’t want people to know me as a victim,” she says. And she’s not; at least, she’s not only that. She’s also a vessel, and a voice; and by showing her to be those things and more, Bombach’s film also positions her as a symbol of voicelessness…,” wrote indiewire.

A voice that has to keep speaking out about atrocities because our real-time, no time world moves all too quickly onto the next shiny object, the next pretty face, the next tragedy, always just a short commercial away.

Nadia Murad was given just three minutes to address the UN, tell the delegates her life story – or 12 minutes less than what Warhol promised 15 minutes of fame. So Bombach’s film, which runs 1 hour and 34 minutes, should help right the slight and gives a beautiful, determined young crusader, the voice of her people, their best hope to spur the world to awareness and action.

Fingers crossed.

More about Alexandria Bombach:

Award-winning (recently at Sundance) documentary filmmaker Alexandria Bombach.

Alexandria Bombach is an award-winning documentary filmmaker originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Telluride audiences were introduced to Bombach in 2015 with her first feature-length documentary, “Frame by Frame,” which follows the lives of four Afghan photojournalists facing the realities of building Afghanistan’s first free press. And everyone embraced her character-driven story.

“Frame by Frame” had it’s world premiere at SXSW in 2015 and has since won 18 festival awards.

Having founded her production company Red Reel in 2009, Bombach has spent the last nine years living “on the road” as a filmmaker and freelance documentary cinematographer.

In 2012, she directed and produced the Emmy-Award winning series “Moveshake” which gave an honest look into the complicated lives of people who have set out to make a positive environmental or social impact.

In general, Bombach’s work challenges perceptions of cultures, issues, and ideas that usually have limited or sensationalized coverage in mainstream media.

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