Alexandria Bombach's documentary On Her Shoulders opens with footage of a predominantly male crowd surrounding a woman in a public square, jostling to take selfies and cameraphone footage. Uninitiated viewers might well wonder who this woman is. One of the Kardashian-Jenner clan? Cardi B? The newly prominent Ruth Bader Ginsburg? The woman, it turns out, has far fewer Instagram followers than any of these, but she does have an urgent message to communicate. She is Nadia Murad, the twentysomething Iraqi targeted by ISIS as part of their attack on the country's Yaziri population in 2014; taken prisoner and put into sexual slavery, she escaped after several months, fleeing to the West with the aim of alerting lawmakers to the very specific threat her people face from the caliphate. (To simplify somewhat, she is to ISIS what Malala Yousafzai has been to the Taliban: a symbolically diminutive figure who stood up to the worst of brutes.) Presenting such a case constitutes a form of heroism, naturally, but it's also - as that title frames it - considerable hard work, a hell of a responsibility, as it might be for anyone having to relive a life-altering trauma in public. That opening image increasingly comes to seem more than a little ambiguous: Ms. Murad's public profile has protected her from harm, but you can see how being surrounded by men, even fans and well-wishers, might still be unsettling.
Bombach joined Murad in New York in 2016, by which point her subject had dropped the niqab she'd previously used to conceal her identity on camera and embarked upon a tour of North American institutions and news outlets. Shots of her being directed through local news preamble, along with raw footage of a Canadian radio interview, very quickly establish that Bombach is interested above all else in how Nadia's story was disseminated and framed. It's not just that she has to relive her experiences, but that she's obliged to relive them over and over again - and be aware, even as she's reliving them, that similar or worse fates might still befall her sisters back home. (And that not reliving them will change nothing.) When her case is picked up and given renewed momentum by Amal Clooney, news reports inevitably begin to skew towards the lawyer's movie-star husband; we are invited to spend so long looking at the gravely beautiful Murad, a pint-pot Charlotte Gainsbourg, that we might wonder whether the media (and the jostling men in that crowd) would be half as interested in a less obviously photogenic survivor. The filmmaker's own interviews with Murad, shot straight to camera in a darkened room, are a model of editorial sensitivity, allowing the subject to raise the points she'd prefer to address. It's clear, for one, that she'd rather speak of the future, or of an alternative present, than she would of the past: "I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress... or a student... or an athlete."
The whole film is characterised by a similar thoughtfulness. Rather than piggybacking on a self-evidently burdened young woman to prove some pre-existing thesis, Bombach holds back; the film that results is a notable feat of observation, alighting or chancing upon telling, often ironic images that define this transitional phase in its subject's life. Nadia appears acutely aware of the absurd freedoms her newfound circumstances grant her, gliding serenely through shopping malls and looking on as soldiers perform a harmless military tattoo; yet we also see her enduring endless photo ops, and gritting her teeth through the political cant that replaces barbarism in supposedly enlightened liberal democracies. Bombach notes how when the Canadian MP Michelle Rempel breaks down in tears in a Congressional antechamber, it's Nadia who leans in to offer a consoling hug (and we note the irony inherent in a Conservative MP welcoming a refugee with open arms: they do things differently in Canada); and though we catch Nadia relaxing and smiling anew, we also spy those dark clouds of doubt that blow in when time comes to convert words into action. Laying a stirring orchestral score over Nadia's plenty impassioned final-reel speech to the UN feels unnecessarily manipulative, but otherwise On Her Shoulders carries Nadia's story (and, indeed, the wider Yaziri story) forward without undue fuss, simply by allowing its subject to tell it on something like her own terms, to communicate the pressures she feels in the free world as well those strains she underwent back in Iraq. She survived those and would rather be here, obviously. Yet what Bombach's film captures, with laudable sharpness, are those moments where Nadia Murad's thoughts flash back, as they frequently do, to life over there - or, at least, to whatever remains of it.
On Her Shoulders opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.