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MY ENEMY, MY BROTHER Short Documentary Makes Oscar Shortlist

This week, we’re joined by the team behind My Enemy, My Brother, shortlisted for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject category. Director Ann Shin, executive producer Melanie Horkan and production manager Hannah Donegan walk us through their experience of financing, distribution and Oscar qualification of a short-form project.

My Enemy, My Brother is a Hot Docs alumni and participated in the 2014 Hot Docs Deal Maker, seeking production funding, and received its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs 2015.

For all the coverage of the Middle East, there are precious few stories that provide breadth and depth of understanding of this region. My Enemy, My Brother is a unique window into the Sunni-Shia conflict that played out in the Iran-Iraq War, which has now plunged Iraq deep into civil war today. Against this backdrop the emotional story of Najah and Zahed is a surprising affirmation of humanity that cuts across political borders. The journey from when we were first told about this story to being on the Oscars shortlist has been an interesting one, so we’d like to share what we’ve learnt along the way.

When we first heard Najah and Zahed’s story we knew that we had to tell it by any means possible. Hearing the story for the first time, we were deeply moved by their courage and bravery, not to mention being completely awestruck by the almost unbelievable series of coincidences that would see the two men find each other in Canada so many years later.  We wanted to make this film because, at its heart, it was a story that broke through Islamophobia and spoke to what it means to be human. It is a story that strikes a chord with audiences who are growing uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Middle East and Islamophobic messaging in popular media.

Despite knowing we had a great story on our hands, as is often the case with films, the road to getting the film financed and produced took a lot longer than we thought. Thankfully we were successful in receiving BravoFact financing, which allowed us to make the film.  We also met Super Channel at Hot Docs Deal Maker, who was instrumental in getting the feature film version into production.

Whilst the film appealed to a global audience, it seemed to particularly strike a chord with a U.S. audience, which is ultimately what makes you appeal to the Oscars. The film is rooted in a message of hope, where two enemies save each other against the odds. In hindsight, it may well have resonated with U.S. audiences because they are tired of being bombarded with negative messages about the Middle East in mainstream media and politics.


Running an Oscars campaign is very time consuming and expensive. We were lucky enough to team up with the amazing team at New York Times Op-Docs after having a great meeting with Jason Spingarn-Koff at Hot Docs Deal Maker. This association would prove to be a crucial pairing, as it immediately exposed the film to the New York Times’ sizeable audience, which meant that our film was reaching more people than our resources alone would have struggled to handle. Most importantly, they were able to help organize our Oscar qualifying screening in New York at the IFC Center shortly after the Tribeca Screening in May. Our DCP was stuck at customs, but thankfully the team at the IFC Center in New York was able to send a runner to the FedEx office on Manhattan. A big shout-out to everyone at the IFC for getting My Enemy, My Brother on screen just in the nick of time!

NYT Op-Docs also helped with the mandatory print ad that comes along with Oscars qualification. They have also been the face of the film at different festivals and screenings in the States, where we can't always be. We also launched a social media campaign, which allowed fans of the film to download it and apply their own subtitles in Arabic and Persian, which meant that it reached a much broader audience.

Shortly after the Oscars shortlist was announced, we flew to San Francisco where HBO and the New York Times had organized a showcase of award-winning NYT Op-Docs films, which included My Enemy, My Brother. The showcase was presented by the San Francisco Film Society, which we later learned is well attended by Academy voters, so it was important to present the film there


Just like any high profile campaign, the Oscars have many rules you must abide by in order to qualify. These include not displaying film festival laurels, and not openly soliciting Academy members. Meticulous rule following had us change our trailer, choose our premieres carefully, and make a few more DCPs than we had imagined. Now that the film is shortlisted there are even more rules. We find ourselves being very careful not to advertise or promote the film as “shortlisted” to any Academy members, while still encouraging them to watch the film. Flying to San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles for screenings is the best way to get Academy members to come out, which can be a large challenge on a short film budget, but meeting people and shaking hands is more important than ever—not only getting the voting Academy members invested in the film, but in the filmmaker as well. While you cannot count on every doc-voting member to watch every film, we are trying our hardest to be the one everyone is talking about. The politics of the Oscars are becoming increasingly clear, and knowing your voters is the best way to get votes.

Hot Docs wishes the entire My Enemy, My Brother team the best of luck!

Categories: Director's Notebook


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