TORONTO — They fought on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, where one saved the other's life on the battlefield.
Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud didn't see each other again for some two decades — until a couple of twists of fate brought them together in Vancouver and ignited a friendship.
Their ongoing journey is the focus of "My Enemy, My Brother," which is making its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
"It's a positive film, particularly in light of the Trump travel ban," says Ann Shin of Toronto, who directed the film.
"It's great to have stories like these come to light."
"My Enemy, My Brother" expands on a short doc Shin made on the duo with the same title two years ago. It was nominated for an Emmy Award and shortlisted for an Oscar.
As the story goes, Iranian-born Haftlang ran away from home at age 13 to join the army, while Aboud of Iraq was conscripted to fight in the war in his late teens, leaving behind his wife and son.
On the battlefield, Haftlang found Aboud critically injured in a bunker and decided to save him and take him to a military hospital. Aboud was taken as a prisoner of war, while Haftlang suffered from deep depression.
Coincidentally, both would end up living in Vancouver, where Haftlang was a mechanic and Aboud ran a moving company.
They didn't realize they were both in the same city until they happened to meet each other in a waiting room about a decade ago.
"It speaks to how Canada received them as refugees, one from Iraq, one from Iran, and these two former enemies become friends in this country," says Shin.
She first came into the project five years ago when she read a newspaper article about Aboud and Haftlang and sought them out in Vancouver, where her parents live.
"I sat down to tea and I heard their story, which was crazy," she recalls. "It was 17 years of war, being a prisoner of war, and then finding each other miraculously in Canada."
This new feature-length version of "My Enemy, My Brother" expands on the short doc by travelling to the Middle East with the two subjects as they try to reconnect with their loved ones amid present-day conflicts.
"Najah and Zahed's story has inspired me from the start about how you can rise above your own circumstances — how you may be told, you may be trained to see a person as an enemy or as a threat but on the battlefield, these men overcame that and it's always moved me," says Shin.
"Even now the way they are with each other and the way they support one another, it just inspires me to see the best of humanity and the best about our country, Canada, where this can happen, and really shows these two men of Muslim background in a really positive light."
Hot Docs runs through May 7 with a total of 230 titles from 58 countries.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press