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.

Scott Peterson/Getty images
Masoud Dehnamaki: One of Iran's most popular filmmakers, he has attracted reformers and conservatives alike with his iconclastic work.

Masoud Dehnamaki's office is no longer made up to resemble the front line of the Iran-Iraq war, with sandbags, helmets, and gas masks – and a sign requiring preprayer ablutions before entering.

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.

A sequel that will have the largest cast in Iranian cinema history is under way. The manuscript sits enticingly on a couch in his office. And the project has grown further, into a trilogy of full-length films – another Iranian first.

"Even when I was a member of Ansar, I was a cliché-breaker," says Dehnamaki, whose short beard and long-sleeve shirt buttoned at the wrists speaks to a conservative style. "I tried for everything to be real, to show the reality of the war. When you show the fear alongside bravery, and defeat along with victory, people will accept it."

The story is based on the young men Dehnamaki eventually led at the front, a motley crew whose victory – sometimes measured in terms of survival against a superior Iraqi force – speaks to the wider beliefs veterans hold about the war. "We resisted eight years and defeated the enemy," Dehnamaki says. "This is a source of pride for every Iranian."

Cloaked in comedy, "Ekhrajiha" tells of a gang member named Majid who gets out of prison and explains his absence by pretending to be returning triumphantly from the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. But he is found out, and the woman he loves dismisses him as unworthy. Majid and several friends – irreverent misfits, junkies, and thieves who are disdainful of the official revolutionary zeal of the time – decide to prove themselves by signing up to fight.

The men are challenged by religious men as they try to sign up and are tested. How often have they been to Friday prayers? "Yes, I went, but I was caught in traffic and arrived at 3 p.m., so it was closed," replies one joker. "They said to come back on Saturday."

When the men finally make it to the front line, they are again dismissed by those who are ready to become martyrs, and who fight in God's name, out of spiritual devotion. "Their presence destroys the order of the war," one officer confides to another.

In the process, Majid is transformed. He risks his life, stepping across a minefield that has claimed several soldiers. Some of those who appeared to be much more religious turn out to be cowards or weak. "God, why did you bring me here to show me that they changed and I didn't?" implores one religious man who hides during a firefight. "God, you've won."

There was even a scent of subversion on the set, according to a "behind the scenes" film made by Dehnamaki that can be bought on the street. "Look, my whole body is trembling for the sake of these dialogues that are given to us," complains one older actress, worried about controversy and unaware the camera is recording.

She says she took the job for the "lowest wage" to pay for her own trip to Mecca, swear "upon the Koran" that she is not the kind of person who would normally say such things, and then hopes the film will finally not be a approved by Iran's official censors.

"This is all the work of Mr. Dehnamaki," says the actress. "In this job you do not even have one moment of peace. Every moment your heart is about to sink, [expecting] they are going to come and arrest us."

But the film has had a spellbinding effect on its audience. Dehnamaki provided a "recipe of salvation," says one veteran observer, for Iranians deeply divided between hard-liners – many of them veterans who look down on those who did not make similar sacrifices – and reformists, who deem the war a historical footnote with little connection to their Western-leaning lives.

"In the audience you had all-chadored [black-cloaked conservative] women, and bad-hejabi girls [with loose head scarves]," says the observer. "He brought them together, side by side."

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