By Nancy Macdonaldpair of Ray-Ban sunglasses gave Zahed Haftlang a second chance at life. More than a decade ago, shortly after arriving in Vancouver as a refugee, the Iranian mechanic and former prisoner of war attempted to kill himself in his tiny Yaletown apartment. Zahed was broken, lost. He believed he would never again see his wife, Maryam, nor their brand-new baby girl, Setayesh. Both were in Iran, a country he could never re-enter. He had spent half his young life at war—and the remainder tortured by its memories. “I’m exhausted,” he thought to himself. “I’m tired of breathing.” So Zahed found a bicycle brake cable, which he fashioned into a noose. He bought a strong length of rope. And, on July 1, 2001, moments after his roommates left for the Canada Day fireworks at English Bay, he climbed onto a chair. He watched from a window as his friends disappeared, then attached the rope to a support beam. He put his head through the noose and bound his wrists, stepping over them, so his hands were tied behind his back. Then he stepped off the chair. He’d been hanging less than a minute when his roommate Akhbar burst through the door. Akhbar, who was obsessed with his Ray-Bans, had jogged home to grab the shades he’d forgotten on his bed. He started screaming when he opened the door, drawing the attention of a third man, who cut Zahed down. He was rushed to nearby St. Paul’s Hospital, where a psychiatrist urged him to seek counselling at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture (VAST). That’s how Zahed survived, and ended up in a cheap vinyl chair in VAST’s waiting room in the summer of 2001. The only other person in the room that day happened to be another ex-POW. Najah Aboud was Iraqi. Like Zahed, he didn’t like doctors, didn’t like talking about the war. He didn’t want to be there at all. But all that changed in the next few minutes. In an improbably beautiful twist of fate, it turned out that the man seated across from Najah that day in East Van was his saviour: the boy soldier who’d risked his own life to save Najah’s 20 years earlier. Their incredible story of loss, redemption, triumph and destiny has been chronicled in the new documentary My Enemy, My Brother, by filmmaker Ann Shin. It launches at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 24. Shin, a former CBC radio producer, is the director of 2013’s award-winning documentary The Defector, about a shadowy figure who helps smuggle North Koreans to safety in China and South Korea. My Enemy, My Brother is currently in short form, just 14 minutes in length. Shin is launching a companion web series to take viewers behind the scenes. She hopes the buzz generated online and at Hot Docs will help fund the longer version, which, in part, will follow the next leg of Zahed and Najah’s journey. Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud are among thousands in Canada with hidden pasts, people who have made it here against all odds, smuggled onto ships and across countless borders, people who have survived war, trauma, political oppression, people you pass every day on the street or in the bus, the people who serve you coffee at Tim Hortons, who change your oil or give you your flu shot. Over the past couple of weeks, with the film about their lives set to premiere, Zahed and Najah opened up to Maclean’s about the tortuous paths that led to their improbable reunion in Vancouver, more than three decades after meeting on the battlefield in southern Iran. They were enemies then. Today, they are best friends.
Zahed Haftlang (left) and Najah Aboud in Vancouver
Iraqi troops in Soviet-made tanks trying to cross the Karun river near Khorramshahr, where Zahed and Najah met (AFP/Getty Images)
Personal documents of Najah Aboud, a few surviving mementos from his life in Iraq
Iraqi soldiers in a POW camp near the Iranian City of Ahwaz, 1982 (AFP/Getty Images)
For filmmaker Ann Shin, this short documentary on Zahed and Najah is just the beginning. Shin had trouble selling My Enemy, My Brother to commissioning editors, who she said “failed to see the magic of the story.” So she decided to simply start filming; she’s hoping to fund a feature-length film on the buzz created by the short doc, and an open-forum web series and social media campaign that launches this spring at MyEnemyMyBrother.com, which involves the audience in the filmmaking project. Shin, who’s also working on documentaries about superfoods and so-called “smart drugs,” will open up her process to viewers, asking them to help her puzzle through such quandaries as whether to tell Najah a secret that his sister has asked Shin not to share with him, or if she should follow him to Iraq if his family does not condone it. Next month it will play at New York’s IFC Center as part of an Oscar-qualifying run. The feature version will be shot by cinematographer Duraid Munajim, whose past credits include The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. But, ultimately, to Shin, it’s “a story about two people thrust into the most dangerous situation imaginable, and one guy who rose above it and decided to save his enemy.”
For more on the story of Zahed and Najah, go to CBC Radio Ideas' award-winnning documentary, "Enemies and Angels."
Writer: Nancy Macdonald Editor: Sarmishta Subramanian Designer and developer: Amanda Shendruk Photographer and videographer: Jimmy Jeong Video editor: Michelle Turingan Photo editor: Natalie Castellino