Ann Shin on "My Enemy, My Brother"

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Interview by Eva Crocker

Ann Shin’s short documentary, “My Enemy, My Brother” which was shortlisted for an Oscar, screened at the 26th annual SJIWFF this past October. I spoke to her about the remarkable story behind her film, the challenges of telling the past in the documentary genre and webseries as a vehicle for opening-up the filmmaking process to the viewer.

SJWIFF: Could you tell me a bit about “My Enemy, My Brother”?

AS: “My Enemy, My Brother” is a film about two regular guys from Iran and Iraq who get caught up in events out of their control, their countries go to war and they are conscripted. One is a thirteen year old soldier, a child soldier and the other is eighteen or nineteen. They happen to meet on the battlefield and the child soldier risks his life to save other soldier even though they are enemies. By a twist of fate they meet again in Canada, decades later, under unlikely circumstances.

SJIWFF: How did you hear about this story?

AS: I first heard about it through my friend, Greg Kelly who is the producer at CBC Radio’s “Ideas”. He told me about this story and suggested I make a documentary about it. I thought, it’s a great story but it all happened in the past, it makes more sense to do it as a dramatic film with a full Hollywood budget and a desert battle scene. The radio documentary that Greg made was great but I wasn’t sure the story would work as a documentary film. My parents happen to live in the same city that Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, Vancouver. I went to visit my parents soon after I spoke to Greg, so I hunted down Zahed and Najah’s names and numbers. They agreed to meet up so we met in Najah’s home in New Westminster. He’s a packrat, a hoarder, there was hardly anywhere to sit down. We ended up talking for about three hours.

SJIWFF: Can you talk about the decision to include re-enactments in the film?

AS: With any documentary that deals with historical moments or moments in the past, filmmakers are faced with the question of ‘how do you tell that part of the story that happened when I couldn’t be there with the camera?’. In the case of Zahed and Najah’s story, we knew it was such a compelling part of the story that we couldn’t just tell it through interviews, we needed images. There are many creative ways around that. Re-enactments are iffy because they sometimes feel cheesy or fake. Then there’s motion graphics and archival footage, which are other ways to tell the past. We really deliberated, we needed to show a child in the battle scene. We did archival research so we had lots of archival photos and footage but none of it quite fit or felt compelling enough for the story. We decided to do some careful re-enactments with a green screen with the intent of montaging the re-enactments and a setting that our motion backing person composited from actual photos from that particular battle.

SJIWFF: How did you choose which archival photographs you wanted included?

AS: We wanted to be sure that if we were representing Iraqi soldiers who were wounded that it was in fact Iraqi soldiers in the photographs, we wanted it to be as accurate as possible.

SJIWFF: You’re continuing to work on this story through a webseries, how is making a webseries documentary different than making a short documentary?

We’re also working on it as feature. We’re about to go to Turkey for the feature, we’ll be filming for a month or so. When we started the project I was pitching it as a feature film which is what we are working on now but the road to getting there came in parts and pieces. We got financing for a short film, so we produced a small section of the story as a short film. It was really heartening to see how well the short film was received. We’re starting to get more money for the feature but we’re not fully financed yet.

In the process of doing a documentary, it often works like this, your whole project isn’t financed right away. So you’re filming in bits and pieces, it’s a multi-year project and often the journey of the filmmaking itself is interesting. I started wondering why we don’t share that process with our audiences, why we don’t include our audience while we’re making the film. I presented this idea to the Bell Fund and with their support we were able to make an open-forum webseries. I would post parts of the story as we were filming it and talk to people on social media as part of the forum.

Making a webseries forces you think about two to three minute story chunks and you get very precise about what’s story worthy and what point you want to make. Building a story arc over a number of web-episodes is an interesting way to think.

This project also got me talking to people from various associations, Arab and Persian organizations, filmmakers and film viewers. Getting their comments and feedback helped me think about the feature differently. Their questions and thoughts helped me hone my approach and figure out what I was trying to establish with the feature. Opening up the filmmaking process like that was very interesting for me.

Click here to watch "My Enemy, My Brother" on The New York Times website.

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