On Her Shoulders

On Her Shoulders


Santa Fe New Mexican

Santa Fe filmmaker tells story of activist who escaped ISIS 

Alexandria Bombach had one of those weeks.

"Is it really Friday?" she said, laughing. "I could've sworn it was Saturday."

It was Friday afternoon, one more day in what has been an exhausting stretch for Bombach, 32, a Santa Fe-based documentarian. The tax has been both physical, as she tours with her latest acclaimed film, and emotional, as the subject matter of that feature is genocide and a survivor's struggle to be heard.

"It's not an easy film to talk about all the time," Bombach said. "It was a very difficult film to make. I don't think any previous experience could have prepared me for it. ISIS and genocide and sex slavery--but also seeing just how difficult and sometimes desperate and hopeless the advocacy side of this work can be. It was very eye-opening and draining, honestly."

But it is essential, as noted by reviewers far and wide, who have heralded the film, On Her Shoulders, as powerfully empathetic and Bombach's direction as deft and sensitive.

On Her Shoulders follows Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who saw her people, an Iraqi religious minority, massacred, raped and tortured when the Islamic State invaded in 2014. Murad was held captive as a sex slave. She escaped and subsequently led an activist push for recognition of the atrocity and the plight of refugees, and Bombach's film is a fly-on-the-wall observation of Murad's public advocacy, her rise to becoming a beacon of strength for her people and a global figure.

Murad, now 25, won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, the same month the film premiered.

Bombach, while emphasizing she was naturally quite proud of Murad and glad for the additional recognition of the plight of the Yazidis, said she was ambivalent about the honor--or, rather, the reception to her subject's winning it.

"The film is almost critiquing these accolades and pageantry," she said. "It's one of the biggest awards in the world; it's incredible. But the things people were saying to me after she got it--as if there was a sense of relief, or it was an answer. I think that's problematic and a bit dangerous. There's so little that's been done for the Yazidis. I think Nadia understands that complexity."

For Bombach, whose film serves as a sort of commentary on the voyeuristic tendencies of the media, members of which have sometimes unconcernedly forced Murad to relive her trauma for their cameras, the filmmaking process was introspective, as she considered her own role in telling Murad's harrowing story.

"That kind of journalism--under the guise of it being important for the story to be told, but really it's just gawking and sensationalizing trauma--is something I couldn't stand," she said. "I was confronted with my own works, too, questioning what we do as documentary filmmakers, and that's why the film is made in the way it is. I'm also questioning our general responsibility to storytelling and our responsibility to stories of survivors of trauma.

"The film is kind of positioned in that way. People go in thinking this is a film about Nadia, but they leave understanding it's a film about the rest of us and our responsibilities and the way we've been interacting with these stories. And how we need to really be critical of our participation."

Bombach, who was born in Albuquerque, raised between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and attended both Santa Fe High and La Cueva High in the Duke City, is no stranger to tough subject matter. Her first feature-length documentary, Frame by Frame, followed four Afghan photojournalists navigating that country's nascent free media space. She also directed Afghanistan by Choice, a New York Times op-doc, following a group of residents who must grapple with whether to leave a destabilizing country.

A director, cinematographer, editor and writer, she has lived the nomadic life of a freelance filmmaker, beginning by projecting her pieces against the side of the 23-foot Airstream trailer in which she lived, frequently moving between different cities and countries, depending on the project.

On Her Shoulders was celebrated at the Sundance Film Festival this year, with the film winning the top award for documentaries and Bombach taking the top honor for documentary directing.

A graduate of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., Bombach has been generally based in Santa Fe for a decade, most recently refurbishing her parents' garage into a livable space over the past few years.

A crowd of several dozen took in the film Saturday night at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Bombach answered questions afterward. She will attend and speak at the 4 p.m. screening at the CCA on Sunday.

When her sprint to present On Her Shoulders concludes, she will move onto a narrative film script based in New Mexico. Bombach can't say what; excrement "would hit the fan," she said.

Also in the works is a Santa Fe-based film editing and screenwriting residency program with help from granting organizations like Sundance. Bombach said the residency program, housed in a new building just outside town, would provide filmmakers with a safe, healthy space to work--the kind of space she said she would've liked to have while editing On Her Shoulders or her previous pieces.

"After eight years of making really sad films, it's really important to have a good place to do the work and also community to support you," she said. "I became very driven to make it happen. I know so many other filmmakers who could really use this."

What Bombach could use, at the moment, is her own apartment. "I've tried to make it a little nicer--a little nicer, but it's not fun living out of a garage," she said.

After helping to tell some of the most difficult stories imaginable for almost a decade, the Santa Fe housing market should be a breeze.

By Tripp Stelnicki

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