ON HER SHOULDERS – movie review


Oscilloscope Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Alexandria Bombach
Screenwriter:  Alexandria Bombach
Cast:  Nadia Murad, Murad Ismael
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/9/18
Opens: October 19, 2018

When President Trump viewed pictures on TV of the children killed by Bashar al-Assad’s chemical or biological weapons, he exclaimed “Let’s kill that f—er.”  Earlier than that, during the campaign, he assured the American people that he would wipe ISIS off the map.”  Admittedly the terrorist group has suffered losses, having to move out almost completely from its bunker in Syria, but that has not stopped the group from killing, maiming, enslaving and raping the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq.  As Nadia Murad, the focus of Alexandria Bombach’s doc “On Her Shoulders,” points out, in her village of Sinjar, the older men and children were destroyed, the women held captives as sex slaves.  One of these women, Ms. Murad, escaped from her captors through a door accidentally left open, was taken in by some of her countrymen, and eventually became the principal spokesperson for the crimes committed by ISIS; a genocide, in effect.  Missing in “On Her Shoulders” is the way its principal subject managed to be swept away from her country to become the leading advocate for information on the genocide committed by ISIS.

For Alexandria Bombach, directing, manipulating the lenses and editing  “On Her Shoulders,” this is her sophomore full-length feature after her 2015 picture “Frame by Frame,” a personal look at four photographers in Afghanistan.  Her present subject, Nadia Murad, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize and wrote a book about her dreadful experiences, “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State.”  Since embarking on a whirlwind tour of seventeen countries, lobbying for funding to help the people left behind and petitioning the U.N. General Assembly to conduct a full investigation of the war crimes, this woman has given up the chance to live the life of a normal, pretty woman in her early twenties but relishes her role in the public eye.  This is not to say that despite her generally stoic composure she never lets loose with tears whenever describing her own rape and her witnessing of the mass murder and enslavement of her people.  Bombach captures the subject’s emotions in close-up and in shots that find Nadia addressing a full session of the General Assembly, wearing a headphone to receive translations into Kurdish and Arabic wherever necessary.

She teamed up with Murad Ismael, a founder of Yazda, which is a group advocating for the Yazidis.  The two cry out for no more talk and a lot more action, and perhaps their championing of the fight to destroy ISIS has met with some success, given the aforementioned displacement of ISIS from most of Syria.

Bombach’s broad sweep takes us to refugee camps in Athens and Thessaloniki where Murad chats with Luis Moreno Campo, first prosecutor for the International Criminal Court.  We find that the refugees will likely be split up among countries willing to accept them just as some of the Lost Boys of Sudan were relocated to the U.S. The bad news is that the spreading out of the Yazidis among several countries could spell the end of the community whose half million followers will no longer be able continue the cultural traditions allowed in a single state.

Bombach edits carefully, merging several meetings and speeches of her brave and dignified subject, asking us in the movie audience to hear the same morbid story over and over—undoubtedly more wearying for Ms. Murad than for the target audience of progressives who will catch the documentary when it opens Oct. 19.  Traditional entertainment value embodying animation and special effects are absent, likely affecting word-of-mouth of the initial film audiences and discouraging those whose political literacy nonetheless requires flashes of melodrama.  We hope that more docs of this nature are in the works, particularly now when the Rohingya people are regularly persecuted by Myanmar’s military.

It’s the old story: during times of extreme nationalism, majorities in countries often consider smaller groups to be “the other.”  Yazidis in Iraq; Jews, Romani and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany, Armenians in Turkey in 1915, Muslims in 15th Century Spain.

94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+



USC Shoah Foundation
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vanessa Roth
Cast: Xia Shuqin, Chris Magee, Xia Yuan, Li Yuhan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

The Girl and The Picture Poster

As right-wing, authoritarian parties are gaining influence in the West—think Hungary, Greece, France, Germany, Russia, and (gulp) the U.S.– we would do well to remember the consequences of extreme nationalism wherever it exists. Among the best examples is that of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. Known as a highly civilized country where talking in a loud voice was considered virtually a crime, Japan fell prey to Fascist politics, which led the country—even before its attack on Pearl Harbor—to invade China, provoking atrocities especially in Nanjing where up to 300,000 civilians were tortured, raped and murdered. Faced with unusual resistance beginning in Shanghai, Japanese soldiers turned barbaric, ignoring the rules of war by focusing on ordinary people, though some Japanese went over the line under the influence of Crystal Meth, resulting in the exclusion of civilized norms of morality.

We in the U.S. have been apprised of the Holocaust in Germany by an onslaught of films. Even high-school classes sometimes devote an entire term to the murder of six million Jews. But the Holocaust by Japan is given twenty minutes of so in a world history class (I can testify to this as a retired history teacher). But China has a constructed an elaborate memorial to the victims in Nanjing, all civilians, with some memorial constructs similar to those found in today in Berlin and especially by a block-long museum in the city where the devastation took place.

To remind us once again of the dangers of fascism, Xia Shuqin, an eighty-eight year old survivor who was able to hide until the soldiers went away, is questioned by her granddaughter with the great-grandson in attendance. Among her dramatic testimony is her recollection as one of the only two survivors of the massacre. The Japanese killed her father immediately when he opened the door, then her one-year-old sister, her mother, grandparents and two sisters. Xia shows three scars on her back as she was bayoneted by the soldiers.

Xia reveals with still pictures the horrors of bodies everywhere, but most important we in the audience see archival films, now faded, of the weeks beginning with Japan’s invasion of Shanghai in September 1937, then on to Nanjing, where the Japanese acted with barbarity that might have shocked some Nazis. Chris Magee demonstrates the camera used by his missionary grandfather to create a moving image of the slaughter. Had he been caught filming by the Japanese, he would not have died in bed.

Nanjing today is a completely modern city, as renovated after the war as was Rotterdam after the German bombings. It appears so clean and friendly that it should a tourist destination for visitors who cannot tolerate the pollution in Beijing and Shanghai.

This film is as much about Xia Shuquin as a record of the slaughter. She is intent just as Holocaust survivors today in the U.S. to ensure knowledge of fascism in the hope that similar tragedies will never occur again. Tell that to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Tell that to the Russians who are propping up the worst dictator in our time.

The film is a project of the USC Shoah Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg to record eyewitness accounts of genocides, whether they be in Nanjing or Europe or wherever. Festival dates TBD.

Unrated. 40 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE PROMISE – movie review


Open Road Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Terry George
Written by: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 4/13/17
Opens: April 21, 2017
The Promise Movie Poster
If you go to Berlin, you will note some sights that would seem unbelievable.  Near the city center, an entire large square block is taken up with a Holocaust memorial, 2711 slabs of concrete arranged in a grid pattern as a memorial to the Jews who were killed on Nazi orders during World War II.  Germany has gone overboard with contrition, delving into the country’s budget to make financial reparations for the murder of six million Jews.  Students from elementary school through secondary institutions are required to make trips to the Holocaust museum in Berlin, and I noted during my visit that the young people visiting the site seem as apologetic as though they were in the war themselves.

By stark contrast, the government of Turkey to this day refuses to admit its own guilt in the genocide of Armenians living within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.  As though it were not sufficient for the Turks to send armies to battle in World War I beginning in 1914, they used the opportunity to murder their own people, just as Syria is doing now in the sixth year of Syria’s civil war.  But the Armenians were not rebelling.  They lived side by side with ethnic Turks, marrying across religious and ethnic lines.  However, as a general rule, when things get bad, when an alarming crisis is on hand such as Turkey’s entry into the war, minorities sometimes get swept up by a suppressed rage now let open.  The excuse Turkey gave for its campaign against Armenians is that a contingent had joined with the Russian enemy; they could no longer trust their loyalty to the Ottomans.

As a result, the genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied Armenian male population through massacre and subjection of draftees to forced labor; the deportation of women, children and the elderly and sick on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

Director Terry George, whose powerful “Hotel Rwanda” covers the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus, is well equipped to hone in on the Armenian genocide. We do not learn why the Turks turned on this minority group, perhaps because “The Promise” is a Hollywood movie as concerned with a triangular romance as it is with the brutality of the Turks, therefore spending a considerable part of its overlong 132 minutes on the romantic attachments of Ana (Charltote Le Bon), an Armenian raised in Paris, with two gents.  They are Christopher Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist with Associated Press, and Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student.

Oscar Isaac’s role is key as Mikael, an apothecary who leaves his small Ottoman village for Constantinople to study medicine, after promising to wed Maral (Angela Srafyan).  Like some med students in America who depend on their wives or girlfriends for tuition, he uses Maral’s dowry of four hundred gold coins for tuition.  Maral would be naïve to think that nobody in the Turkish capital would turn her boyfriend’s head: Ana, a dance instructor, has her own eye on the journalist, a man of noble character reporting on the genocide and noting that without reporters like him, the Armenian people would completely disappear.

After Turkish divisions break windows of Armenian-owned shops in Constantinople (think of Germany’s Kristallnacht a quarter-century later), Mikael and Ana wind up in bed together.  Yet back home in the village, Mikael’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) demands that her son make good on his promise to marry the small-town gal.

When photographer Gabriel Yared uses wide-screen lensing to show the pained expressions on Chris’s face when he sees his sweetheart together with Mikael, he gives ample time to the actual fighting; to the half naked Armenian men who are on a detail of heavy work leading some to die, and to the happy moment that the Armenians resist strongly, based on a true event in the mountainous Mosa Dagh where the Turks were held back for 53 days.

Oscar Isaac carries the film on his shoulders, an admirable job as a charismatic fighter and lover and also brilliant medical student who near the beginning of the story deftly extracts an organ from a corpse.  Yet another bold move features the American ambassador to Constantinople telling the pasha that the journalist, in jail for releasing genocide material to AP, must not be executed but instead must be freed.

During the same year that “The Promise” is released, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” has followed a similar trajectory: the love story between an idealistic American nurse and a Turkish officer in World War I.  Presumably a new interest in The Great War is on the march, though the first world war will probably always take a back seat in Hollywood to the second.  “The Promise,” for its saccharine romance and pounding music on the soundtrack is a respectable treatment of an action by the Turks that killed between one million and one and on-half million Armenians.  Again: the temptation in some countries to use a critical time such as war or depression to eliminate a minority may unfortunately be with off for a long time.

Rated PG-13.  134 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?