Today Nadia Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to draw the world’s attention to the Yazidi genocide in Northern Iraq. I just recently screened the documentary about Murad at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival (expertly curated and run by Professors Tula Goenka and Roger Hallas) so I cannot imagine that winning this Peace Prize will garner Murad any peace.
On Her Shoulders (Alexandria Bombach, 2018) tells us that Murad’s horrifying trauma began one August day in 2014. But like the film, I have no interest in recounting the gory details. Bombach’s film is not primarily about what happened to Murad, but about what it takes to get the brokers of global power, money, military might, and moral agency to do anything more than listen and yawn. Bombach frames her film as a question not only of what kind of story makes the world’s movers and shakers of the world take action, but also of how many times, to how many persons, through how many media venues, with how many tears must a person retell, and thus relive, the horror that was done to her and around her.
On Her Shoulders, in short, focuses on the juicy voyeurism of confession. Bombach presents but also subtlely critiques this voyeurism by showing the insatiable media and political desire for it and implicating viewers in that desire, but then nearly systematically refusing to satisfy it. We see Murad marched through a relentless gauntlet of a global media culture that demands–and obtains–self-flaying testimony from survivors of extreme trauma, but we don’t garner details from these scenes so much as an accumulated value of raw affect.
But wait a minute, you might say, Nadia’s actions are voluntary. And that is true. She could have remained in psychiatric care and turned inward. The moral quandary arises when she or other survivors actively seek help, redress, or justice for themselves or for those still caught in the trauma they have escaped. Is it possible for them to make their case without ceding to a process that persistently retraumatizes them?
Bombach crafts a subtle technique of visual and aural montage that whisks viewers through the huge quantity and devastating quality of Murad’s “appearances,” thereby maintaining a relentless, uncomfortable close-up on the structures of confession mandated by radio, television, national parliaments, and United Nations subcommittees. I couldn’t find a copy of my favorite image of the film (and of the entire SUHRFF), but it occurs shortly after the image I have included at the top of this post. Nadia has finished yet another radio interview in Canada. The interviewer thanks her with polished, radio-announcer empathy, and when Nadia removes her headphones we hear the announcer’s panicked voice ask Nadia’s translator to have Nadia put the headphones back on and say thank you and goodbye. Proper media format must prevail above all else. Nadia wipes her eyes and nose, as we see in the image I have shared. She struggles to regain composure. Then comes the moment I find most haunting. Through the glass behind her, a blurry figure moves toward the recording box and emerges into focus. It is a secretary or assistant, though we only see part of her body. She moves behind Nadia and off of screen right and we then see a facial tissue lowered over Nadia’s shoulder. The image sums up the film for me: an offscreen White woman discreetly offers a Kleenex to the (multiply) exposed Yazidi woman. The comfort is cheap, and Nadia pays a high price to obtain it.
Christine Blasey Ford is unlikely to repeat her testimony. The trauma she related is common and unextraordinary and though I and millions of others “stand with her,” she does not, as does Nadia Murad, feel the burden of representation. Every time Nadia testifies, she faces an almost insurmountable task of getting politicians to agree to work together against a known injustice. Christine Blasey Ford did not even expect her testimony to be believed. Bombach’s exploration of the social and political contours of the voyeuristic demand for confession was reduced last week in Congress to the affective contours of political spectacle, boxed and sold as ridicule before Blasey Ford even entered the Chambers. The week was not without voyeurism. Every computer, cell phone, and office hallway and cubicle participated in the voyeurism. Even those of us who could not bear to watch or hear, “watched” and “heard” through the various notifications that pinged on our smartphones. Weirdly, though, the focus of our voyeurism was not Blasey Ford–as the focus of voyeurism in On Her Shoulders was, relentlessly, on Nadia Murad. The focus was on the power brokers themselves, the animated, non-rational extensions of this dying machine we used to call democracy.