Iran's greatest generation? Provocative filmmaker recasts Iran-Iraq War

"The Ascendants" shows an ordinary family caught up in the Iran-Iraq War, which shapes Iran even today. But in its depiction of the war, the film defies the official narrative of a "sacred defense."

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Iranian film director and a former leader of the hard-line Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilante group, Massoud Dehnamaki stands beside a banner for his film "Ekhrajiha," or "The Outcasts," in 2007, the year of its release. The director's latest war movie takes a more nuanced view of the Iran-Iraq War in which he fought.

The lights in the Tehran cinema go down, and from the wail of the first air-raid siren to the climactic battles scenes, Iran’s latest war movie transports the audience to another era's front lines.

On its face “The Ascendants” is a simple story about an Iranian father who tries to prevent his son, a top student, from volunteering for the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and from almost certain death. 

The film boasts vivid battle scenes, from the Iraqi bullets striking Iranian SEAL teams underwater, to grenades tumbling in slow motion toward Iraqi trenches, to the chaos of a night assault on barbed-wired mine fields and helicopter downings. But what elevates the film – and helped break box office records – is its penetrating look at the war still lauded three decades on in Iran as the “sacred defense." The film has grossed $1.5 million since late March, beating all other releases. 

More than 200,000 Iranians died in the eight-year war against Iraq started by Saddam Hussein. Cast in Iran as a holy struggle to consolidate the 1979 Islamic revolution, it ended only with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. The wartime ideals of self-reliance and of relying on faith to overcome great odds – combined with what many Iranians see as the treacherous US and foreign support for Iraq – still shape everything from Iranian decisionmaking in nuclear talks to the rhetoric at Friday prayers. 

But with “The Ascendants” ("Me’rajiha"), director Masoud Dehnamaki is telling Iranians to reconsider the official narrative of sacrifice and greatness: Not every fight brought a victory, and not every Iranian was ready to die.

Reviled all around

Mr. Dehnamaki, a serial iconoclast and former hard-liner with a slight build and devious smile, has driven Iran's liberal-leaning film industry crazy with one blockbuster after another, despite his lack of formal training. His first war films, a trilogy known collectively as “The Outcasts” ("Ekhrajiha"), were Iran’s highest grossing movies.

“People are surprised. He is like a bantamweight boxer who came out of nowhere to be the heavyweight world champion," says Nader Talebzadeh, a conservative director and critic who fought in the war.

His personal history is a major factor in the anger. In the late 1990s he led the Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilante group, which played a key role with staged violent attacks that helped undo the reformist agenda of President Mohammad Khatami. Many liberal Iranians despise him and refuse to see his films. He once had a replica front-line trench in his office, and told the Monitor in 1999 that American-style clothes on Iranians were the “bullets of the West.” 

But he has also been targeted by the fundamentalist militants he used to lead, accused of insulting war veterans and diluting revolutionary values. "The Outcasts" featured a gang of misfits, junkies, and thieves who are dismissed at the front in the Iran-Iraq War by self-declared believers, but prove more worthy on the battlefield.

Criticized by both sides, Dehnamaki has said he feels “stuck between the blades of a pair of scissors." The death of five people in a pyrotechnics accident on the set of “The Ascendants” in January brought more criticism for what was seen by some as a callous response. One Twitter user wrote that he hoped Dehnamaki also “would become a martyr.” An actor and director said if Dehnamaki wants to transform his aggressive reputation, he must first “apologize to the people he has hurt.” 

“Nowhere in the world do they swear at their successful people [like this] – they study why they were successful," says Dehnamaki in an interview. “But over here … there is a lot of jealousy."

“I am already exhausted and have no desire to make films anymore,” Dehnamaki told Radio Javan in April, noting that the $15 million or so his movies earned equaled the budget for 100 other films in Iran. “All these unsympathetic comments have made me unenthusiastic.”

Reluctant martyrs

As a teenager, Dehnamaki ran away from home to volunteer to fight in the Iran-Iraq War and was wounded three times at the front. The experience adds authenticity to his war films and gives him latitude to criticize the war's legacy.

For many Iranians, the war was about much more than repelling Saddam Hussein. It was a sacred duty, a war of martydom fought for the love of God to protect a divine Shiite revolution.

But "The Ascendants” makes clear that view was far from universal. In one scene, the father goes to the local mosque to interrupt a war recruiter who is telling a group of determined-looking young men, among them his son, that they are “men” for deferring university and joining up.

“You are doing a very good job with a high pressure hose to brainwash these kids!” the father exclaims as his son shrivels in embarrassment. His son is too inexperienced to know whether to urinate to the left side or the right, but “now he wants to help the soldiers of God?” he scoffs.

The son does go off to fight, and eventually achieves martyrdom. His unit is decimated, and not all can be airlifted from the battlefield. The wounded who are left behind gather their dog tags and pass them along the trench, from one bloodied hand to the next, and into the helicopter. 

While the film shows the ideology that compelled so many, it does not affirm the usual soaring narrative of Iranian victory because of superior religious faith and a pathetic enemy. Instead it shows an Iranian offensive crushed by Iraqi troops and their tanks. Trenches filled with Iranian corpses are doused with fuel, and a Zippo lighter with an American flag is shown lighting a cigar that is then tossed into the trench to set it aflame. 

“I showed the real strength of the enemy; I showed the bitterness of the war,” says Dehnamaki. “The reality was a lot of parents didn’t want their children to go, to be killed."

“I always told my friends, the front was like a wedding; it is light and gets lighter,” says Mr. Talebzadeh, the conservative director, of the sacred feeling on the battlefield. "Dehnamaki is the only one who has captured that."

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