Iranian filmmaker bridges deep political divides with irreverence
Masoud Dehnamaki, a former militant, has broken box-office records with his irreverent film about the Iran-Iraq war.
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And few hints remain that this slight, black-bearded former militant was once a leader of violent vigilantes called Ansar-e Hizbullah. In the late 1990s he wielded a club – and the pen of the hard-line newspapers he edited – to provoke lethal clashes with students and attack reformists.
But Mr. Dehnamaki is a serial iconoclast, and remains so even as he shifts targets.
Today, those right-wing credentials are enabling the war veteran-turned-film director to challenge prevailing myths about the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, an event that defined Iran like no other since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Perhaps only Dehnamaki, among the pantheon of Iran's gifted film directors, could get away with the irreverent portrayal of the war in his film "Ekhrajiha," ("The Outcasts"). In taking that tack, he reveals how the sanctity of the "sacred" war, as the conflict is called here, is being redefined.
"The message is that this country is for everyone, with different political tendencies," says Dehnamaki, who volunteered at 16 to fight and spent three years on the front line.
"It's breaking the clichés, and many people did not like that," he says of the film. "In 'Ekhrajiha,' we knew how to play with those red lines [about the official version of the war], but did not cross them."
Such political moderation was once sacrilege to Dehnamaki, who in 1999 told the Monitor, "When you see some people here dressed in American-style clothes, you are seeing the bullets of the West."
That year, he was present during a brutal attack at a university where students had protested peacefully over the closure of a reform paper. The incident was reported to have left up to nine students dead and sparked the most violent street protests since the revolution. Dehnamaki was detained and interrogated; the official investigation found that the sheer presence of a "famous member" of Ansar "was provocative, because students recognized him."
Dehnamaki's leap across Iran's political divide – from hidebound regime enforcer to the director of a groundbreaking film that raked in a record $1 million in 28 days – hasn't been easy.
The director had already raised conservative hackles with two documentaries, one exploring a taboo subject in "Poverty and Prostitution." "Ekhrajiha" also brought stinging criticism from many quarters, and Dehnamaki's former Ansar-e Hizbullah comrades even made their own documentary to counter the film.
Even before he directed "Ekhrajiha," The New York Times noted that Dehnamaki's outspoken documentaries had made him "Iran's Michael Moore." He told the paper he had made mistakes in the past, by blaming people instead of "our rulers, who have become used to corruption and cannot fulfill the promises of the early days of the revolution about social justice and equality."
Dehnamaki refused to take the prize for the Audience Favorite film at the prestigious Fajr Film Festival last year, saying he wanted more recognition for his crew. But armed with popular kudos, the director is preparing to break new ground again.