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“I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress . . . an excellent farmer . . . [not] as a victim of ISIS,” says Yazidi refugee and activist Nadia Murad in On Her Shoulders.

3 documentaries explore the toll of activism

Advocacy is seen as necessary work to prevent further suffering. But it can result in new types of pain and some of the most prominent activists suffer in silence.

By Jonathan Forani

The young woman is barely visible as she pushes through a mass of men taking selfies. She’s flanked by two suits who help quell the crowd snapping the photos. To unknowing bystanders, the scene might look like a mob of fans rushing toward a celebrity. But Nadia Murad is no Hollywood starlet. She is a survivor of the Yazidi genocide, a former ISIS sex slave who has turned her grief into activism.

This is the opening shot of the new documentary On Her Shoulders, which screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival in May. Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad’s struggle with a morbid kind of fame for surviving what thousands of her people did not. She fights to have their story heard, while also wrestling with how the trauma has come to define her. “I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress . . . as an excellent student . . . as an excellent farmer. I didn’t want people to know me as a victim of ISIS terrorism,” she says in the film. “I wish it hadn’t happened to me, so I wouldn’t have to talk about it.”

The film is among a group of recent documentaries that examine the weight of movements on their leaders, movements that rest at the intersection of trauma and activism. Murad and others’ personal stake in their causes is what gives each of those campaigns a distinct power. But what toll does activism take on the wounded? In most cases, it’s a double-edged sword. Advocacy is seen as necessary work to prevent further suffering. It can lead to immense personal growth for the activists and serve as a way to honour victims. But it can often bring forth new types of pain when the push for change seems futile.

In On Her Shoulders, Murad’s sullen face speaks volumes. There’s the occasional smile, even a joke about news media. But much of the time she seems daunted, exhausted by the campaign that has taken her to about 20 countries — including Canada, where the first half of the film is set — speaking to politicians, journalists and everyday people. She’s repeatedly asked to recount her experience when 700 people in her village were slaughtered: What happened that day when ISIS invaded your town? What was it like to be treated like property? They beat you? And then they raped you? Do you think about your family?

She endures the questions like she endures her own grief — because she has to. In one scene, Murad and her team discuss whether she should be called a refugee or an activist. It’s clear that she cannot be one or the other. She is both.

At a rally in Berlin, Germany, on the second anniversary of the genocide, a friend tells a crying Murad that the demonstrators are “all getting their strength from you. If you cry, they’ll cry too.” A moment later, Murad is speaking to the crowd on a stage, and the next she is holding a woman who has collapsed on the ground in tears.

Finding strength and support in a community of victims is a common response to trauma, even when activism is not involved. But for some like Murad, grieving must go beyond that; it’s imperative to also speak out.

This sentiment animates Newtown, the devastating 2016 documentary available on Netflix about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 and its aftermath. “There is an immediate and human desire to protect the rest of the world from having to go through this,” says David Wheeler, father of six-year-old victim Benjamin Wheeler. He and a group of other Newtown parents brought their trauma to Capitol Hill and have continued to fight for gun control in the years since the tragedy. It hasn’t been easy. Parents were forced to withstand conspiracy theories and criticism from pro-gun lobbyists on top of their own personal grief.

Nicole Hockley, mother of six-year-old victim Dylan Hockley, has become one of the most recognizable faces of the movement as a co-founder of the Sandy Hook Promise foundation. In Newtown, she likens sharing her grief to repeatedly taking her heart out each day. “Then at the end of the day, you just take all the tattered remains and shove it back in,” she says in the film. Her activism has involved travelling, which she says helps because she can imagine her son Dylan is still at home in Newtown while she’s away. Speaking out has given Hockley and other parents a distraction and a purpose.

In the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, available on Netflix, campus rape survivors express a need to find purpose in their trauma, too. Even as they face death threats and a lack of institutional support — a reality that drives some to self-harm — the will to push through is strong. “With my friends going through the same thing I experienced six years ago, it’s heartbreaking. That has affected me more than my own rape,” says Annie Clark, who left work to focus on activism.

Though many women choose not to come out publicly, that’s exactly what gets the others through their trauma. “I found politicizing my own experience to be actually the most helpful step,” says assault survivor Alexandra Brodsky in the film, which depicts a slow build of the movement from few students to many.

It’s impossible to watch the final scenes of The Hunting Ground in 2018 without thinking of some of the survivor-led activism taking hold in parts of the United States and beyond. Scores of women have gone public with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo reckoning. And in Parkland, Fla., the teenage students who survived the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have led nationwide marches. As with Murad in On Her Shoulders, the parents in Newtown and the women in The Hunting Ground, their activism holds a special poignancy that politicians and lobbyists simply can’t provide.

Jonathan Forani is a freelance writer in Toronto.


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