We look at the remarkable story of Nadia Murad, the Yazidi human rights activist from Iraq who was recently awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Murad was kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 and repeatedly raped as she was held in captivity. After managing to escape, Murad fled Iraq and has dedicated her life to drawing international attention to the plight of the Yazidi people. The documentary “On Her Shoulders” follows Murad as she shares her story with the world. The documentary has been shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and recently received the Columbia Journalism duPont Award. We speak with the film’s award-winning director Alexandria Bombach.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a remarkable documentary that profiles the life of Nadia Murad, the Yazidi Kurdish human rights activist from Iraq. She was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Congolese gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege. In 2014, Nadia Murad was kidnapped by the Islamic State and repeatedly raped as she was held in captivity for three months. Since escaping, she has dedicated her life to drawing international attention to the plight of the Yazidi people. The film is called On Her Shoulders. This is the film’s trailer.
UNIDENTIFIED: They’re all getting their strength from you. If you cry, they’ll cry, too. They’re all getting their strength from you.
NEWS ANCHOR: Catastrophe is unfolding in northern Iraq.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ISIL forces have called for the systematic destruction of the Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide.
UNIDENTIFIED: They killed most of her family, and they made her their slave.
SARAH MONTAGUE: She managed to escape, but thousands of women are still being held, which is why Nadia Murad is campaigning to try to get the world to notice and do something.
UNIDENTIFIED: The only hope for all of us, Ms. Nadia Murad.
SARAH MONTAGUE: And when you think about the men who raped you, what do you want to happen to them?
INTERVIEWER: Did you try to resist? Could you tell him no?
SARAH MONTAGUE: They killed your mother, as well.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to the women? What happened you?
NADIA MURAD: [translated] These kinds of questions are not the ones to ask. The things I want to be asked are: What must be done so Yazidis can have their rights? What must be done so a woman will not be a victim of war? These are the kind of things that I want to be asked more often.
Today, I’m not only talking on my behalf, about what happened to me. Here, I am the voice of 3,200 girls, women and children still in captivity.
UNIDENTIFIED: Attention of honorable members to the presence in the gallery of Ms. Nadia Murad.
UNIDENTIFIED: I give the floor to Ms. Nadia Murad.
UNIDENTIFIED: In front of witnesses, Ms. Nadia Murad.
UNIDENTIFIED: I now give the floor to Ms. Nadia Murad Basee Taha.
NADIA MURAD: [translated] I beg you to put humans first. This life was not only created for you and your families. We also want life. And it’s our right to live it.
UNIDENTIFIED: Although she’s the strongest person I ever seen, I don’t know how much more strength she has.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer for the film On Her Shoulders. The documentary has been shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Documentary and recently received the Columbia Journalism duPont Award.
We go now to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to speak with the film’s award-winning director, Alexandria Bombach. On Her Shoulders premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where Alexandria won the best director award for a U.S. documentary.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Alexandria, as you join us from Santa Fe. Talk about how you came to profile Nadia.
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, Nadia and I met in the summer of 2016. I was really interested in telling her story because of her unique situation of having to repeat her story over and over again. The production company, Ryot, and I partnered that summer, and we followed her for three months of her campaign. And that was really during a very hectic and peak time of her campaigning.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain the title, Alexandria? When did you come up with the title On Her Shoulders and why?
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: I think that was a really complex decision, because, you know, a lot of people wanted it to be called “Nadia,” but, for me, this wasn’t a biopic. This was, you know, a section of Nadia’s life that was really important, but it also was about reflecting on what this film really means, is that, you know, I want an audience to reflect that this is something that we’ve put onto Nadia, this is something that’s on her shoulders to do, which is really a lot, as a survivor of this kind of trauma, to be the face of the Yazidis and be the person who’s speaking out and trying to get the world to move. It just seemed more appropriate to really reflect on that and call it On Her Shoulders.
AMY GOODMAN: Your film, On Her Shoulders, is also really a film about media criticism. Let’s go to a clip where Nadia Murad talks about the media.
NADIA MURAD: [translated] Of course, all of the media we meet, they want to know what is what. But I’ve been asked many questions, like “How did they rape you? How?” This is necessary. Of course it’s necessary. But some things I’ve been asked… “What do you want to do?” some ask. “You have become famous. What does that mean to you?” These kinds of questions are not the ones to ask.
The things I want to be asked are: What is the fate of those girls? How young are the girls who are going through this pain? What is the situation of the refugees who I visit in the camps? What is the situation of my people in camps in Kurdistan and Sinjar Mountain? What must be done so Yazidis can have their rights? What must be done so a woman will not be a victim of war? These are the kind of things that I want to be asked more often.
AMY GOODMAN: A clip from On Her Shoulders. Alexandria, can you talk—as you followed Nadia through these interviews, I mean, you have this really behind-the-scenes look at how she’s, I mean, in some senses, interrogated by interviewers and reporters. And if you can talk a little more about what happened to her? For example, the murder of her mother and her family.
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: Well, this, you know, was the first time I was really getting a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for a journalist to be interviewing someone of this—that’s been through this kind of trauma. As a storyteller myself, you know, I’m usually the one doing the interviewing, and so I understand my own process and dynamic. But sitting back and kind of being privy to that dynamic, it was really shocking to me to see how often Nadia was asked about her captivity in a way that was really digging for a lot of detail.
And I think Nadia understood and I understood that, you know, there is an importance to really outlining how horrific these events were and that they’re still happening, and really trying to get people’s attention of how horrifying it all is, but at a certain point it felt sensational and a little bit more gawking at this trauma. But, so, for me, as a storyteller, I don’t think I could have ignored that. But I, you know, through this process, really found myself being critical of my own storytelling. And it was a very—yeah, a huge experience for me to see the things that she was going through, because it made me reflect on our own responsibility as storytellers and to survivors of trauma.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, that’s one of the questions that, you know, one can’t help but think, in watching the film, which is: What is our responsibility to survivors? So, after having made this film and stayed so close to Nadia for all that time, what’s your response to that question?
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: I think, you know, I really was listening to Nadia, that there needs to be a different line of questioning that’s moving things forward rather than just talking about her captivity. There was a lot of pressure put on her to retell and retell and retell. And often I would hear people, you know, saying, “I know you’ve had to tell it a million times, and we’re so sorry, but tell it again.” And I think, you know, throughout the filming, kind of saw Nadia become more disillusioned with what the actual impact of media was. And by the end, you really see her come full circle and have more control over her voice. But, you know, this was in the summer of 2016 that we did the filming, and edited in 2017. The film came out January of this year. So, she’s been doing this since. And since she won the Nobel Peace Prize, I mean, her life has even gotten more hectic. So, this was a small glimpse into just the beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to play her full Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, but I want to just squeeze in another clip from On Her Shoulders.
NADIA MURAD: [translated] I never considered this to be a job. I want people to know what I’m doing, but I want them to know it’s not a job. I want them to know it’s a request for help.
When the media came to the camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, I would tell them about our conditions in the camp. I would tell them about ISIS. But it never reached anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexandria, can you set the scene for us? You were in Oslo at the Nobel Peace Prize presentations. Your film was shown there. We’re going to end with a big piece of her speech. Lay out for us what it was like.
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: I mean, it was a very powerful event, obviously. I think the big takeaway for me is that a lot of the film is kind of pointing out how problematic this kind of—that the accolades and the pageantry can be. And it’s conflicting for Nadia, you know, to be awarded for something she—that all of us wish had never happened. And so, being there in Oslo was really interesting because, you know, it’s just—it’s another accolade, and it’s an incredible thing, of course, but I think I really want people to reflect that this is not the answer, that there’s still so much work to be done. I don’t think it’s something where we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “OK, we gave her an award.” You know, there’s so much work to be done, and for the Yazidis specifically. And Nadia reflected on that in her speech, which was so powerful—and I hope people do get to listen to the whole thing—that this was not a time for sympathy, but a time for action.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in December, Nadia Murad received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. We’d like to end today’s show with Nadia in her own words. This is an excerpt of her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
NADIA MURAD: [translated] I hope that today marks the beginning of a new era, when peace is the priority and the world can collectively begin to define a new road map to protect women, children and minorities from persecution, in particular victims of sexual violence.
I lived my childhood as a village girl in Kojo, south of Sinjar region. I did not know anything about the Nobel Peace Prize. I knew nothing about the conflicts and killings that took place in our world every day. I did not know that human beings could perpetrate such hideous crimes against each other.
As a young girl, I dreamed of finishing high school. It was my dream to have a beauty parlor in our village and to live near my family in Sinjar. But this dream became a nightmare. Unexpected things happened. Genocide took place. As a consequence, I lost my mother, six of my brothers and my brothers’ children. Every Yazidi family has a similar story, one more horrible than the other, because of this genocide. …
In the 21st century, in the age of globalization and human rights, more than 6,500 Yazidi children and women became captive and were sold, bought and sexually and psychologically abused. Despite our daily appeals since 2014, the fate of more than 3,000 children and women in the grip of ISIS is still unknown. Young girls at the prime of life are sold, bought, held captive and raped every day. It is inconceivable that the conscience of the leaders of 195 countries around the world is not mobilized to liberate these girls. What if they were a commercial deal, an oil field or a shipment of weapons? Most certainly, no efforts would be spared to liberate them.
Every day I hear tragic stories. Hundreds of thousands and even millions of children and women around the world are suffering from persecution and violence. Every day I hear the screams of children in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Every day we see hundreds of women and children in Africa and other countries becoming murder projects’ fuel for wars, without anyone moving in to help them or hold to account those who commit these crimes.
For almost four years, I have been traveling around the world to tell my story and that of my community and other vulnerable communities, without having achieved any justice. The perpetrators of sexual violence against Yazidi and other women and girls are yet to be prosecuted for these crimes. If justice is not done, this genocide will be repeated against us and against other vulnerable communities. Justice is the only way to achieve peace and coexistence among the various components of Iraq. If we do not want to repeat cases of rape and captivity against women, we must hold to account those who have used sexual violence as a weapon to commit crimes against women and girls.
Thank you very much for this honor, but the fact remains that the only prize in the world that can restore our dignity is justice and the prosecution of criminals. There is no award—there is no award that can compensate for our people and our loved ones who were killed solely because they were Yazidis. The only prize that will restore a normal life between our people and our friends is justice and protection for the rest of this community.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Nadia Murad receiving the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize on International Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2018, just a few weeks ago, in Oslo, Norway. I want to thank Alexandria Bombach, the award-winning filmmaker, cinematographer, director of On Her Shoulders, which profiles the life of Nadia Murad. It is playing in select theaters, from New York to Los Angeles, and also available at, among other places, Amazon Prime.