A service we almost never mention here at Primetimer is Curiosity Stream, but I’m reminded by Heval — its first original feature film — that it’s one of streaming’s hidden treasures. Curiosity Stream is the brainchild of John Hendricks, who once had a brainchild called the Discovery Channel. It launched in 2015, has thousands of documentary films and series in its collection and costs $19.99 a year. Yes, that’s the annual fee and well worth it, even if they never co-produce another doc. But after viewing Heval, I hope they do more.
This is the story about a Hollywood Brit named Michael Enright who one day was feeling extremely grateful for the opportunities he’d had since moving to America. So, did he gain U.S. citizenship and write a book of patriotic gratitude a la Craig Ferguson? He did not. Instead, Enright — who had just turned 50 — flew over to northern Iraq and enlisted with a Kurdish resistance group to help defeat ISIS in Syria. “I love America and I felt a debt to America, and I hadn’t paid her back,” Enright effuses in the film’s early going.
Enright, whose friends all attest to his impulsive and occasionally hot-headed nature, was incensed by snuff videos being circulated by ISIS of beheadings and other beastly forms of death being dealt to their “enemies,” including the American journalist James Foley. Enright was particularly infuriated by the black-hooded sadist-narrator of these videos, known widely as Jihadi John, whose English accent identified him as a fellow countryman.
At about this point in the film I must say I was convinced that I was dealing with a nut. That this was yet another story with an unreliable narrator skilled at convincing us that he’s something he isn’t. Fortunately, director Adam Wood puts that suspicion to rest early on by putting Manuel Roig-Franzia on camera. Roig-Franzia, a veteran journalist at the Washington Post and author of countless profiles, started hearing about this actor who had claimed to be in Syria fighting ISIS. From the beginning the story sounded highly dubious. But then he started checking Enright’s claims and, as he says, “there was really something there.”
Enright, it turns out, is one of a number of self-styled freedom fighters who embedded with anti-ISIS forces in the region known as the Kurdish homeland, which overlaps four countries including Syria and Turkey. Turns out a lot of Westerners were angered enough by Jihadi John and jihadism generally — and were probably looking for some adventure — that they put everything on the line for the cause. For Enright, this meant selling his beloved Porsche 911 and his other possessions and flying into harm’s way, contacting a shadowy organization he found on Facebook and reporting to training camp.
Now ask yourself, if you were the leader of a military group seeking wider recognition for your cause, and a ruggedly handsome greenhorn from the West shows up one day, what would you do with him? The same thing the U.S. Army has been doing with entertainers for decades: They made Enright their spokesman.
When he wasn’t shooting off his AK-47 — which he clearly enjoyed and which his comrades clearly wished he’d do less of — Enright was producing rough-and-ready propaganda for the YPG, the Kurdish faction made up of male and female Yezidi fighters that he’d embedded with. Curiosity Stream publicity has highlighted “the actor’s own jaw-dropping, never-before-seen helmet-cam video of deadly battles with and interrogations of ISIS fighters,” and that’s no hype.
Ultimately the YPG was able to assist in chasing ISIS out of their stronghold. After two tours of duty, Enright was ready to head home. That’s when things took another unexpected twist, but you can watch all that for yourself.
In the end, the reason I recommend Heval isn’t because of Michael Enright, as compelling as he certainly is. The Kurds are the largest ethnic population in the world without a political territory to call their own. The victorious countries of the First World War had made provision for a Kurdish homeland in a 1920 pact, but that promise was broken by a subsequent treaty and they’ve been an oppressed minority ever since. They current occupy regions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — four countries where the U.S. has shockingly little leverage despite 20 years of military activities in the region post-9/11.
Heval is a terrific film on its own merits and Michael Enright is all he’s cracked up to be. But he also serves as a guide into understanding a part of the world that, for all the blood and treasure we’ve left there, has left a remarkably small footprint on our national conscience. Heval will spark your curiosity about that region and the remarkable people fighting for a homeland in it.
Heval is now streaming on Curiosity Stream.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.