My Enemy, My Brother
Canadian documentarian Ann Shin’s moving and humane look at post war traumas in My Enemy, My Brother doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its title and premise, but instead offers something far more personal, pointed, and heart wrenching. An examination of a politically fraught, but genial relationship between two men who lived on opposite sides of the 1980-1988 Iraq/Iran war and their shared scars, My Enemy, My Brother starts off by looking at a shared journey of healing, but the emotional effect is greater when the story of each man is taken in parts rather than as a whole.
Zahed is a former Iranian child soldier who was compelled to join the military at a young age as a means of getting away from his physically abusive and mentally ill father. Today, Zahed lives in Vancouver, works as an auto mechanic, and has befriended Najah, a former Iraqi soldier who spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war. Najah has horrible, vivid memories of his days as a prisoner, but he desperately wants to return to the region to determine the whereabouts of his intended wife and the son they had together out of wedlock. Although Najah’s family thinks the quest to find a child born out of wedlock will be heartbreaking at best and life threatening at worst, the man remains undeterred. Zahed is far less excited to return, but when he discovers that his father is in hospital with an inoperable brain tumour, he tries to make it to Turkey to meet with his family and gain some sense of closure.
The connection between Zahed and Najah that forms the backbone for Shin’s work is fairly obvious and pushed into the background for most of the film’s running time. Once both men are introduced to the viewer, it isn’t hard to guess what makes their friendship so significant. That significance is handled as a grand reveal towards the end of My Enemy, My Brother, but the link between them might also be the least interesting thing about the remarkably journey of these men. While it’s clear that Zahed and Najah have found strength, comfort, and commiseration in each other’s company, their stories are equally deserving of their own films. The overlap of Zahed and Najah’s lives would have been better handled if it was addressed off the top instead of watching Shin coyly play around it for an hour, but that doesn’t dampen the respect and delicacy that she employs in depicting two men who have lived in great emotional pain for the past twenty years.
Shin spends a majority of her time with Najah on his trip back to the Middle East, quietly observing the monumental number of times his friends and family tell him to give up the search for the child he only ever saw as an infant. Najah is constantly being admonished that his search for closure could ruin families, and possibly cost people their lives, especially when one considers that in Iraqi society few things are more damned than children born out of wedlock. His frustrations are palpable and sympathetic, but Shin never skews or manipulates the material, painfully showcasing Najah as a man who continues to be beaten down decades after his military service has ended.
Thanks to an apprehension to travelling, Zahed’s storyline doesn’t have as much overlap, but the emotional conflict and turmoil surrounding his desire to reconnect to his abusive father casts Najah’s quest in a different light. While one man is trying to reconnect to his fatherly duties, another tries to forgive his own father for mistreatment and suffering. One man tries to reconnect, while the other tries desperately to let go. Together, the stories contained within My Enemy, My Brother amount to a bittersweet look at the imperfect nature of the healing process.
That process is hampered by their shared knowledge that decades of war after war after war have left the once closely knit populations of Iraq and Iran scattered throughout the world. Any chance of closure or connection has become nearly impossible, which makes Najah and Zahed’s friendship back in Canada all the more incredible to behold. While that friendship fails to be the focus of Shin’s film and it never coalesces into something as moving as it could have been, the individual narratives of My Enemy, My Brother offer a lot of insight into the current plight of many international refugees and immigrants. Shin’s work balances empathy and the reality of the shared history of this specific generation of Iraqis and Iranians to create a unique look at the unhealed scars of war.
My Enemy, My Brother opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, March 9, 2018.
Check out the trailer for My Enemy, My Brother: