A chance encounter in Vancouver between two men whose paths had crossed many years before on a battlefield on the other side of the world is at the heart of Ann Shin’s My Enemy, My Brother, a powerful and moving short film being screening this weekend at OIFF. The battle took place at Khorramshahr in southern Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Zahed who was on the Iranian side was searching an Iraqi bunker that had been hit. Inside among the casualties he found Najah, wounded but still alive. Zahed looked through Najah’s things and found a Qu’ran with a picture of a young woman and a child inside it. Instead of doing his duty and finishing Najah off, Zahad hid him and helped him to survive.
The film’s director Ann Shin came across the story of Najah and Zahad’s unlikely reunion through a friend and when she met them she was blown away by their story and felt like she had to bring that story to the wider world.
“The fact that they found each other again after so many years was a coincidence of almost cosmic proportions. But there were two things that I found touching and really moved me to make the film. Firstly, they were so young, Najah was a young man but Zahed was still a boy, and suddenly they were flung into the horrors of war. Then despite having been part of this brutal war Zahed acted on his own sense of what was right. He took a risk and his act of courage inspired me. The other thing that I found important about this story is that we have two guys former enemies who have become friends, one from Iraq and the other from Iran, and we so rarely hear positive stories about men from this part of the world.”
The film is very relevant from the perspective of the current election campaign in which the exodus of Syrians from their homeland and the question of their re-settlement has become such a central issue. My Enemy, My Brother is a testament to Canada’s rich history as a place where people who are suffering can come and have a second chance in life.
“It is very discouraging now to hear people saying that we shouldn’t help the Syrian refugees because Isis members are embedded. This way of looking at the other as malevolent, it’s very unfortunate.” says Shin whose own parents came to Canada from South Korea.
The film also highlights one of the most brutal, but somewhat forgotten, in the light of what followed, conflicts of the last century. “Some of the things that happened in the Iran-Iraq war were incredibly cruel. Saddam used chemical weapons. The Iranians used children as mine sweepers, giving them a little blue key which they were told was the key to heaven. Up to 100,000 children were sacrificed in this way.”
Despite the war ending in 1988 Najah was kept as a prisoner of war in Iran until 2000. After his release he found life difficult and it was decided that he should join some family members who had emigrated to Canada. He settled in Vancouver and, suffering from post taumatic stress disorder, he began to seek help at VAST (Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture). Zahed meanwhile also had difficulties adapting to life after the war. He eventually began to work as a seaman, but an incident on the boat in which he was judged to have been overly critical of the Iranian regime led to his jumping ship in Vancouver to escape facing punishment on his return to Iran. After he hit rock-bottom alone in Vancouver he was taken to VAST for help. Amazingly when he entered the room Najah happened to be there too. The men got talking and eventually discovered that this was not their first meeting.
Incredibly this is only the beginning of a much bigger story, one that Shin is in the process of telling. She is currently working on a feature-length version. Both Najah and Zahed, believing that their meeting must have some deeper significance, want to complete the circle now. For Najah that means going home to Iraq to find the girlfriend and son whose image moved Zahed to spare him back in the bunker all those years ago. The return is only now possible after Najah has finally obtained his Canadian passport. And Zahad desperately wants to return to Iran to see his dying father, but by returning he will risk losing the freedom he has come to enjoy in this country as someone whose criticisms of the Iranian regime are most likely still on record.
“It’s really a human story rather than a political story. That’s why I hope we’ll be able to go back to their countries. Luckily Najah is from Basra in the south which is more stable than other parts of Iraq, and we’re still trying to figure out how to get into Iran which is complicated for foreign journalists and film makers.”
We can only hope she finds a way. For now, My Enemy, My Brother in it’s current format, is still essential viewing.
My Enemy, My Brother screens today at 4pm at the Cineplex Theatres in Lansdowne Park as part of the Ottawa International Film Festival. For more info, click here.