Nadia Murad once dreamed of opening a salon in her home village in Northern Iraq. The salon would be a place where Iraqi women could feel beautiful and special. But at the age of 21, Murad’s dreams were shattered by the Islamic State.
Murad is now turning her experience with ISIS into a campaign to stop the genocide that is wreaking havoc in her home country, and director Alexandria Bombach is showcasing the activist’s fight in the documentary “On Her Shoulders.”
“We made this film to understand and connect with her humanity. To feel the complexity of that journey and her countless frustrations,” producer Hayley Pappas told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman during a screening of the film at the Landmark Theatres Monday night.
On August 3, 2014, members of ISIS went into Murad’s village of Kocho and systematically raped and killed those who identified as Yazidi — a religious and ethnic identity predominantly found in Iraq.
Her village had been completely taken over by ISIS extremists. Her family was taken away from her. She would be used as a sex slave.
But the one thing they could not take away was what made her special: undeniable courage.
“I feel like I was in the presence of Nelson Mandela before he became Nelson Mandela,” Pappas said.
Pappas and Murad first met in 2015. Pappas was doing news coverage for the media company RYOT at the time and says she realized the best way to tell Nadia’s survival story was through a character-driven documentary.
“It was important for us that we don’t do a 60-minute news piece, but that we do a careful, artful, nuanced and intimate film,” Pappas said.
Before Pappas could even begin checking off all those boxes, she and Bombach had to convince Murad to let them follow her during her media blitz in July 2016.
After Murad escaped captivity, she made her way to Germany. Soon she began to take countless interviews from the press about her story with the help of Murad Ismael, the executive director for a primarily Iraqi and Syrian relief organization called Yazda.
This raised her profile. She was no longer just a refugee, but an activist. In the summer of 2016, Murad was set to be named the next Goodwill ambassador to the UN for her efforts to stop human trafficking.
“There was a degree of desperation and responsibility,” Pappas said about Murad allowing the crew and audience into her life.
There was also a degree of camaraderie. While many documentary crews approached Murad, Pappas said, it was the fact that she and Bombach were not men that made the difference. “Most of her team are men,” Pappas said. “So it was nice to have two female peers around.”
The production of “On Her Shoulders” was lean. Only three crew members were in a room at a time. Bombach and Pappas focused on two things in order to accurately depict Murad’s story: capture the moments of exhaling and capture them intimately.
Murad was often left emotionally drained from all the trauma she had to bring back up during her interviews. To balance it out, the camera would also catch moments of her cooking or follow her shopping for new clothes. It was a way to show that she was trying to live a normal life despite all that was going on around her.
“On Her Shoulders” was shot from July to September 2018, leading up to Murad being named the Goodwill ambassador. While the moment was a crowning achievement of her advocacy, Pappas wants Nadia’s work to compel viewers and political leaders alike to take action.
“There was a certain level of pageantry,” Pappas said of the ceremony. “What do we do with the news that we consume? The titles that we give people?”
While there is still work left to be done, Murad’s courage has paid dividends. Not only did she recently receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, but she has successfully started an organization to help women and children victimized by genocide called Nadia’s Initiative.
“On Her Shoulders” is currently being shown in a limited release nationwide. It is showing at the AMC Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, with future dates provided on the film’s website.