The Iran-Iraq War spanned nearly eight years (1980-88) and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.
In the midst of the horror, two men — Zahed Haftlang, an Iranian child soldier, and Najah Aboud, an Iraqi conscript who left behind his wife and son to serve — shared a brief moment of kindness and compassion when Haftlang saved Aboud, who was lying in a bunker, critically injured.
Decades later, the two men reconnected by chance in Vancouver, Canada, where both arrived separately as refugees. Against huge odds, they have become close friends.
Their story and return to the Middle East to find the parts of their past and family is now being told in the full-length feature film, My Enemy, My Brother, from Canadian director Ann Shin, premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival this Saturday.
Shin first released the film as a short in 2015 due to financial constraints. It went on to win multiple awards and was picked up by The New York Times ‘Op-Docs’. She used the momentum to secure funding to expand the story into a full-length doc.
“Because so many people saw the story and were moved by it, there was more interest and financial support for the feature,” she explains.
While the short was circulating, Shin continued to film.
The completed project took four years to come together, with Shin first sitting down to talk with Aboud and Haftlang in 2012, and production wrapping up in early 2017.
Shin didn’t want to put her crew or anyone working on the project in danger while filming in Iraq and Iran.
Iraq, where various regions remain engaged in brutal conflict, proved especially difficult.
“I’ve filmed in risky situations, but this was the first time [I had filmed] in a country that was in a war or experiencing conflict of that kind,” she says.
Speaking with different consultants about what security they would require on the ground, Shin says car entourages and security detail for each crew member were among the steps suggested.
But the director decided against that approach.
“We are going to follow this guy looking for his wife and son in Iraq — we can’t pull in there with black cars and men with machine guns,” she says.
Eventually, with the advice from her fixer (a local guide), the decision was made to go into Iraq with no security. The team filmed in the south, avoiding the north where there is conflict with ISIS.
Shin says the only violence they encountered was a car bomb in a nearby hotel when they first arrived in the town of Basra.
Shooting in Iran was eventually ruled out because Haftlang was concerned about the potential for being arrested in Iran. If he had ever said anything that could have been construed as being critical of the Iranian government, there was the potential he could end up being detained.
“Zahed, who wanted to get back with his father, couldn’t go back to Iran for that reason,” she said.
Putting herself on the line for a story isn’t new for Shin.
In filming her previous documentary The Defector: Escape from North Korea, Shin went undercover and followed North Korean defectors escaping through China. While filming, she said she was constantly aware of the risks of being discovered or caught by officials because she hadn’t declared herself a filmmaker. She also had to be careful to protect the anonymity of the North Korean defectors who have no status in China.
“I went in undeclared and following them — whether in train stations or at the bus stop — it was very nerve-wracking. We had to pretend we were Chinese citizens,” she says.
Every morning the team would have a group meeting to determine the risky areas and the places they should avoid going.
For Shin, the idea of going into Iraq, to a conflict-ridden country to follow this personal story, proved to be unnerving.
“It felt risky but once there with the fixer and the team around us it was clear that it was safe and we were fine.”
Going back to the Middle East was part of the men’s journey, which brought back a lot of difficult memories for them as they had to face the ongoing realities of these countries.
When returning to Iraq, Aboud found it shocking and saddening that his hometown was still ruined from conflict, with buildings half destroyed with bullets, a lack of infrastructure, and no postal or garbage services.
When Haftlang came to help Aboud on his search for his family, it was chilling for both to stand together on the former battleground at the border of Iraq and Iran.
“It re-opened the grief of their losses, and the sheer unlikeliness of their friendship was brought into relief,” says Shin.
Aboud’s family embraced Haftlang when they met him — something he never imagined, nor was returning to Iraqi soil.
“The last time they were there, they were in combat, firing at each other’s armies. Now they stood as friends.”
- My Enemy, My Brother world premieres April 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT at TIFF Bell Lightbox