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Film review: On Her Shoulders, and Bergman — A Year In A Life

25 January 2019

Stephen Brown views new works by two documentary-makers

Nadia Nurad Basee Taha surrounded by fellow demonstrators in On Her Shoulders

Nadia Nurad Basee Taha surrounded by fellow demonstrators in On Her Shoulders

THE subject of On Her Shoulders (Cert. 12A) is Nadia Nurad Basee Taha. It is a documentary about the massacre of Yazidi Christians in northern Iraq by the so-called Islamic State invaders in 2014. She witnessed the slaughter of six hundred villagers, including her family. The attackers raped and tortured the 19-year-old girl, taking her and other young women into sexual slavery. Eventually escaping, she spent time in an Iraqi refugee camp before moving to Germany.

Viewers are spared much of the details of her ordeal. Nadia speaks in a fairly restrained way about it; nor does the director Alexandra Bombach fill in the gaps. We are left to experience the pain through the copious tears that both Nadia and other survivors shed. Still only 21, Nadia addressed the United Nations Security Council in an attempt to alert the world to the numerous Yazidis still captive, besides describing what had already happened. We witness her speaking to presidents at a UN ceremony when she was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

The film chronicles Nadia’s travels around the globe repeatedly telling the story. It begins to have a liturgical feel similar to the anamnesis of the eucharist. Every time she recalls what happened, she is doing it in remembrance of lives sacrificed. We ourselves are drawn into and relive it ourselves.

Nadia Nurad Basee Taha in On Her Shoulders

Nadia tells her story to various gatherings across Canada, as well as a rally in Berlin and on a visit to Greece. She is accompanied by Murad Ismael, who spearheads a Yazidi human-rights organisation and acts as her translator. In realitym there were several other places to which Nadia went and people whom she met, such as Pope Francis, or when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether it is in visiting refugee camps or speaking truth to power, we get the strong impression of a person epitomising some of St Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6: “unknown, yet well-known” (she would rather be the former); “dying, and yet we live on” (ambivalent about survival being a blessing); “punished, yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (up to a point).

She does attract a good deal of media attention, not least because the human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney (whose husband is the film star George) has actively supported her campaign. Nadia complains that rarely do journalists ask the right questions. Far too many are about her personally rather than understanding what makes IS tick, or the sheer enormity of human suffering. Not only do the atrocities continue, but this Yazidi diaspora is perceived by many refugees as another genocide, fragmenting the solidity of a greatly cherished sense of community.

Overall, the film is only as good as what it contains, but we are left with several dangling conversations to be had. We never learn anything significant about Yazidis or their beliefs, or whether there is any closure to the enduring suffering that refugees carry with them. The nearest that we get is when it is said that the Yazidi community will heal when they have had justice. But what would constitute justice for them? Nobody says.

The young Ingmar Bergman (in beret) seen on a film shoot in Ingmar Bergman — A Year in a LifeTHE film director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) had a prolific career which centred on “that search to find the journey of the soul and try to illustrate that”. Jane Magnusson’s spellbinding documentary Bergman — A Year In A Life (Cert. 15) bears witness to the struggle. She chooses 1957 as the year to examine his life and work. That year, he directed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as four stage plays.

His private life was turbulent: six children with four different women and several affairs. Magnusson (also narrator) roams freely before and after 1957. We learn that many Bergman movies are some kind of conversation with God, even after he declares that he has dumped the divine.

Bergman himself is represented through the characters we watch. Frequently, there is poetic licence. In his writings, as well as autobiographical films such as Fanny and Alexander (1982), he attributes to himself events that happened to others. It was his brother who took those beatings from their strict father, a Lutheran minister; Ingmar was a silent witness to the abuse. Apparently, he avoided the cane, castor oil, and dark-cupboard punishments by asking clever theological questions, and was rewarded with cocoa and biscuits. This revelation makes one doubtful that he nursed a life-long angst as the result of a cruel upbringing. It is probably nearer the truth to say that Ingmar was in contention with a God whom his father depicted as setting the human race terrifying difficulties of escaping hell.

In The Seventh Seal, the Knight asks “Why should [God] hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?” Wild Strawberries takes Professor Izak Borg (far older than Bergman at the time) through a series of discoveries about his own life. A greatly admired artist tries coming to terms with his past. Borg, through nightmares and musings, is, in effect, being prosecuted (by God or himself?) for sins committed. It is an orthodox Lutheran understanding of salvation, but leaves the notion of prevenient grace a moot point.

Bergman had much to accuse himself of, running through a number of relationships and marriages. He seems to shrug off his lack of responsibility, even getting the number of children he fathered wrong. Near the end of his life, he wrote: “After years and years of playing with images of life and death, life at last has caught up with me and made me shy and silent.” Shamefaced perhaps? He clearly needs to believe in something, a meta-narrative that will set him alight.

As an exchange student in Nazi Germany, he had cultivated great devotion to Hitler, a leader who enabled a nation to believe in something. Not until the full horrors of the concentration camps had been exposed did he relinquish his admiration. Filmmaking, according to this documentary, is a form of constant exorcism for Bergman. It is a means of escaping his demons, but there is much in his own behaviour which is monstrous. It invites the question how forgiving we should be of great artists, however badly they treat others. We should, nevertheless, be grateful that his camera illuminated the human soul so well.

On current release.

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