‘On Her Shoulders’ captures the struggle after survival

Just a few weeks ago Nadia Murad made headlines when she became the first Iraqi to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work helping victims of genocide and human trafficking. Her advocacy comes from her own devastating experience as a victim of Yazidi genocide and being taken into slavery by members of ISIS for three months. Just a few months after her escape, she began telling her story, eventually becoming a UN ambassador to bring awareness of human trafficking and struggles of refugees. But as she continues to raise awareness, Nadia’s experienced the stress and pain of reliving her trauma and threats against her life. This struggle to make a difference has been captured by filmmaker Alexandria Bombach, who filmed Nadia throughout the summer of 2016, an experience she says changed her life.

Lesley Coffin: When you first started this project, did you already know the approach you’d take in telling this story?

Alexandria Bombach: When I was first commissioned to make the film it was supposed to just be a short film about Nadia. I went in not making any assumptions about what the film would be because I wanted to make sure to do my due diligence. I wanted to just meet her and find a way of representing the experience she was going through. I followed her throughout the summer of 2016 and that’s when I realized the film needed to address the pain and pressure which had been put on her.

Lesley Coffin: Before taking the commission, how familiar were you with Nadia’s story?

Alexandria Bombach: I’d seen her speech at the UN security council but it wasn’t until July of 2016 that I met her. I’d followed the news coverage of the genocide in 2014 of course. But the film also had a really quick turn around time between signing on and when I started filming.

Lesley Coffin: How much editorial control did you give Nadia?

Alexandria Bombach: It took a lot of trust on Nadia’s side to let me tell the story and make the decisions of how to tell it. I showed her the film before we premiered it, because I didn’t want to complicate her security in any way or create issues for her politically. And we got the film cleared that way, and she was very happy with the film at that time.

Lesley Coffin: You could have approached the larger subjects in the film a couple of different way, why did you choose to really focus on Nadia’s emotional experience during this period of activism?

Alexandria Bombach: I’m really interested in exploring why this kind of advocacy exists in the first place and the role it has in our empathy for the refugee crisis in general. I was pretty disturbed by the way Nadia has had to tell and retell her story, and at what cost. It’s made me question my own role as a storyteller. It made me question how we’re packaging stories of genocide for audiences. I was very interested in exploring the position she was in and the way she’s handled it, with such grace and patience.

Lesley Coffin: I don’t know if it was clear to you from the beginning, but when you saw that retelling her story caused her to relive her trauma, were you uncomfortable filming such vulnerable moments?

Alexandria Bombach: It was very difficult, it made me question my entire career as a filmmaker and the responsibility we have to survivors. It was very, very hard to continue filming but it also felt very important to show the world what Nadia was going through as she begged the world for help. And show that the sensationalist stories weren’t helping if the world won’t take action.

Lesley Coffin: Regarding how it changed you as a professional, did you find yourself changing your philosophical approach to documentary filmmaking?

Alexandria Bombach: I really started to ask myself what and who we were responsible to when we tell stories of survivors. There have been a lot of films made in camps by journalists who made promises about what their stories would do, so people would divulge the horrific details of their captivity and experiences. And they’ve ended up feeling exploited by those journalists. I think there are a lot of good questions journalists can and should be asking about how to be responsible and respectful, whether they’re filmmakers or writers or photographers. I hope the film will spark them to ask questions, I know it already has created a lot of conversations. It’s completely shifted the way I think about everything.

Lesley Coffin: Had Nadia expressed that frustration with journalists?

Alexandria Bombach: We never had that specific conversation but I could sense that disenchantment with media she felt and decided it was important to include that in the film. I could sense she was getting tired of being asked the same questions by journalists, even asking what I was doing there. I completely understand her feelings.

Lesley Coffin: You said you were hired to do a short. Did you know during the filming process that this would be a feature or was that decided made during the edit?

Alexandria Bombach: The production company gave me enough time to film a short, and during the shoot I made film teasers and sent clips to them, to kind of plead with them to let me make this into a feature. I knew that this would have to be a feature, because Nadia’s story required a more nuanced approach and there had already been so much short content created about her. But they said no, so I filmed as much as I could and then I edited a feature in secret. When I finished I confessed what I’d done and they were upset at first. But eventually they got on board and now they’re very on board.

Lesley Coffin: What was Nadia’s reaction to seeing herself in the film?

Alexandria Bombach: She saw the film just before Sundance. I think she was blown away by the film because I look frazzled during the filming, so she seemed surprised by how well the film turned out. She told me it was a powerful film and maybe a bit cathartic to look at the work she’d done that summer in a distilled way. I think it showed how much work Nadia goes through that no one really sees.

Lesley Coffin: Have you had a chance to use the film to promote the bigger issues Nadia is advocating for?

Alexandria Bombach: We’re in the midst of that outreach. We’re just beginning that, but we’ve screened at the UN and will continue to screen at more events that can raise awareness.

(C) Lesley Coffin (10/23/18) FF2 Media

Related Posts

FF2 Media Alumna; Senior Contributor
Previous Post Next Post