Two new docos shine a light on why refugees flee

June 21, 2018

On Her Shoulders
Directed by Alexandria Bombach

The Venerable W.
Directed by Barbet Shroeder

Two new documentaries that screened at the recent Sydney Film Festival shine a light, in contrasting but powerful styles, on an important, yet often neglected story in the refugee narrative — why people seek asylum.

Neither of the films overtly sets out to lecture the audience on Western hypocrisy – and that is key to their power. By documenting the situations people are forced to flee, they reveal why people need protection.

In On Her Shoulders, socially conscious filmmaker Alexandria Bombach follows Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who survived torture and rape after being captured by ISIS and is now a leading voice for the Yazidi people.

Many Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority largely from Iraq, are living in refugee camps in northern Syria and Europe as a result of ISIS’s genocidal attacks.

Bombach has spent the past 10 years capturing character-driven stories of people suffering oppression and fighting back, especially in Afghanistan with previous documentaries Frame by Frame and Afghanistan By Choice

This experience shines through in On Her Shoulders, which provides an intimate portrait of Murad – a courageous young woman who spends her time meeting politicians, doing countless media interviews and addressing the United Nations Security Council.

The documentary allows Murad to express her story as she wants. From interviews where Murad is gazing intently at the audience, to the camera gracefully gliding around her as it captures her actions – especially her emotive facial expression. It captures her in the aftermath of traumatising interviews to bringing toys to kids living in refugee camps with equal mixtures of playfulness and sadness.

This is pertinent in a world where powerful forces want to use stories like hers for their own ends, such as justifying military interventions in Syria while simultaneously allowing thousands of people to live for years in refugee camps.

In one of the film’s more poignant scenes, Murad speaks about how she wants the media to ask why her people are facing genocide and living in refugee camps instead of always focusing on her personal story.

The film captures the pressure Murad is under as the voice of her people. With clever sound mixing and Murad’s expressions, you get to feel the intense pressure of the world’s media on her.

You see the struggle of a people to survive genocide through her eyes.

Bombach never feels the need to be overly stylish or ram a political argument down the audience’s throat. By focusing on Murad, the film’s message comes through clearly. A message that there are thousands of people who have had to flee their homes, are dealing with trauma many people couldn’t comprehend and want nothing more than to live an ordinary life.


The first thought I had when watching The Venerable W. was someone had put a camera into the middle of Nazi Germany and hit record.

The images coming through showed a man being revered and applauded as he spoke to large gatherings, telling them about a race of people who were cunning, greedy and wanted to destroy them if action wasn’t taken.

But it wasn’t Germany in the 1930s, but Myanmar today, in a film that shows why thousands of largely Muslim Rohingya, who are demonised in Myanmar, have had to flee.

Academy Award-nominated Barbet Schroeder puts you in the middle of a place where you can see, hear and almost feel what is happening in a way no other form can.

Schroeder, in a John Pilger-esque way, manages to conduct a lengthy, at times candid, interview with Ashin Wirathu, a virulently anti-Muslim Buddhist monk in Myanmar. 

Wirathu freely expresses his views, there is no subtlety as he demonises Muslims. The film compares his actions to Nazi Germany, such as boycotting Muslim-run businesses, and points out his statements about various events are factually inaccurate.

However, the film is more of an events-and-ideas driven narrative rather than a character study of what makes Wirathu tick.

With a mixture of voice-overs, interviews, observational footage, graphics and picking apart leaflets, the film charts the propaganda that leads to people being violently driven from their homes.  

At times educational, emotive and observational, The Venerable W. shows how fascism can develop. It shows not just why thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar, but why they cannot simply “go back to where they came from”.

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