World Agenda

Last updated: 31 january, 2011 - 16:51 GMT

Documenting a Tale of Two Soldiers

Jiyar Gol filming former Iranian soldier Zahed for The Tale of Two Soldiers

Jiyar Gol filming former Iranian soldier Zahed for The Tale of Two Soldiers

Film-maker Jiyar Gol describes the sensitive, long-term approach he took to producing his BBC Persian documentary about the remarkable reuniting of two former foes from the Iran-Iraq war.

For several years I had been thinking of how to tell the story of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) through the eyes of those affected – particularly prisoners of war and the families of victims.

When I was living in Iran, I saw countless official documentaries and dramas that glorified war, proclaiming it as a gift from God.

So, in 2004, I applied for filming permission from the Iranian authorities, but my numerous applications were denied. I quietly started shooting.

While filming in a cemetery one day, the Basiji – an internal security force – arrested me.

They confiscated my camera, but thankfully I was released.

Connected lives

Persuading Najah to talk on camera was very difficult. He didn’t want to talk about his painful past. But over time I developed a friendship with him and finally he opened up to me.

BBC Persian Correspondent Jiyar Gol

I returned to Vancouver, Canada, where I had been living. It turned out that the story I was looking for was not in Iran, but just a few blocks away from where I was staying.

I found an Iranian soldier, Zahed, who spent his youth on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war. He was injured several times and in the final days of the war was captured by the Iraqi forces and held as a prisoner of war for 28 months.

Zahed introduced me to Najah Aboud, an Iraqi soldier. Najah had fought against Zahed on the same battlefield.

He had spent 17 years of his life at war, before being detained in Iranian prison camps. Once he returned, he realised that his wife had remarried and he could not find his son.

Personal transformations

Persuading Najah to talk on camera was very difficult. He didn’t want to talk about his painful past.

But over time I developed a friendship with him and finally he opened up to me.

For the next six years I would follow their stories and occasionally participate in social gatherings, such as birthday parties and family reunions.

It gave me a chance to witness the psychological changes in both men and document the personal transformations they were going through.

I was filming by myself, so they could behave as naturally as possible and express their emotions without any shame.

Finding meaning

Jiyar interviewing Najah and his family

Jiyar interviewing Najah and his family

Thirty years ago, 14-year-old Iranian paramedic Zahed saved Najah’s life.

Years later, the saved became the saviour. Twenty years on, Najah returned the favour and rescued Zahed from depression and thoughts of suicide.

When the pair met by chance in the waiting room of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, their lives changed profoundly and they found new meaning in their lives.

Overwhelming response

I joined the BBC in 2008 and pitched my idea to two BBC Persian editors. With the project approved, we went back to Vancouver to interview Zahed and Najah.

Thanks to the hard work of our picture editor Zoubin Navy, we produced two versions of the documentary – in Farsi and English – and it was translated for BBC Arabic, airing on all three outlets.

We were overwhelmed by the response from both audiences and colleagues. We received emails from Baghdad, Tehran and across the world.

We heard from people in Iran that the film was being discussed on buses, in taxis, schools and universities.

Iranian state television tried to counter the film with a series of programmes and articles in pro-government newspapers criticising us for questioning the “holy defence”.

Think twice

Najah and Zahed together

Najah and Zahed together

The film was not about who started the war or who won the war. It was simply the story of two soldiers, different from the official versions.

The film showed the ugly side of war and how the leaders of two nations – one in pursuit of a greater Arab state, another in pursuit of liberation of the holy Shia city of Karbala – send thousands of young men to the frontline.

I believe my job as a film-maker is to make people pause and think twice. If this film makes one person rethink a decision that puts lives at risk, it may have served its purpose.

You can watch Jiyar’s documentary A Tale of Two Soldiers (in Farsi) by clicking click here

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