My Enemy, My Brother: Two entwined ex-Iran/Iraq soldiers retrace extraordinary lives

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B

An extraordinary story about the friendship between two former combatants in the Iran-Iraq war gets a heartfelt, if awkward, documentary treatment in Toronto director Ann Shin's My Enemy, My Brother.  

Shin previously recounted the story of former Iranian child soldier Zahed Haftlang and Iraqi soldier Najah Aboud, in a successful short documentary in 2015. That film, also called My Enemy, My Brother, recounted how, in 2002, two men met in a Vancouver support group for torture victims, twenty years after they faced each other as soldiers. That would be during the Battle of Khorramshahr, when Iranian troops reclaimed the city from Saddam Hussein's forces. 

The short film was featured on the New York Times' web site, nominated for an Emmy and short-listed for an Oscar.  The two men also told  their story in a book I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate, written with American journalist Meredith May.

 Najah Aboud and Zahed Haftlang: Former child-soldier foes, one of whom saved the other's life

Najah Aboud and Zahed Haftlang: Former child-soldier foes, one of whom saved the other's life

In this follow-up, Shin incorporates much of the footage from the short film and augments it with updated material as she follows the two men back to the Mideast, to deal with their respective pasts. Iraqi soldier Najah, now in his 60s, goes back to the city of Basra to try to find his long-lost girlfriend, Alia, and the child she had with him thirty years before. 

Zahed, now in his late 40s,  wants to reconcile with his abusive father, though getting back into Iran is a problem. That leaves him meeting family members in Turkey. In the film's final section, he heads to Iraq to join Najah  and his family.

Certainly the men are a compelling  pair. The handsome, white-haired chain-smoking Najah provides an introspective contrast to the round-faced, effusive Zahed. And there's a poetry in their fractured English, rendered in  subtitles: "He was catch my hand from darkness and move me to light," or, "There are invisible letters in the heart that connect.”

As moving as this is, the film struggles to find a way to organize the material, to the point where viewers will be tempted to check outside sources to get the chronology straight. This is one of those cases where the filmmaker might have benefitted from breaking the fourth wall and explaining her history with the subjects and her motives. 

Instead, we get a distracting over-use of dramatic re-enactments and an odd decision to withhold the key revelation from the previous short. To wit: many years before, in a rare act of mercy, the teen soldier Zahed Haftlang had saved Najah's life on the battlefield.

Because miracles don't tend to come in clusters, it's no surprise that Nasra's mission to recover his lost family doesn't pan out. After almost forty years of conflict, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are unaccounted for. And as one of the women in Nasra's family points out, exposing a woman who had a child out of wedlock thirty years ago might not be the wisest thing to do, no matter how romantic it sounds.

My Enemy, My Brother. Directed and written by Ann Shin. With Nasra Aboud and Zahed Haftlang. Opens March 9 at the Carlton Cinema.  Along with the documentary, filmgoers are invited to experience the four-minute virtual reality installation, Eye of the Beholder, set in a conflict zone, in which the player meets another soldier who may be friend or foe.