Bearded and brooding, Massoud Dehnamaki hardly comes across like the director of a blockbuster comedy film. He spent three years fighting on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq War. After returning home, Dehnamaki joined an Islamic paramilitary group called Ansar-e Hizbullah, a militia accused of attacking theaters showing films that were deemed un-Islamic. That was then. His current film, Ekhrajiha 2, an Iranian Hogan's Heroes, has shattered all box-office records in the country, raking in a whopping $6.1 million as of last week.
"I had to get into film because the realities that I knew of war weren't being shown," he says in a low voice, flanked by a director's megaphone on one side and a box of mortars, a prop from the movie, on the other. "That's why I had to roll up my sleeves and talk about my own generation to today's generation."
It's not a message that Iran's youth, bombarded by the latest Britney and Black Eyed Peas videos on illegal satellite channels, would seem inclined to hear. But Dehnamaki has drawn in audiences by using slick, Hollywood-style action sequences—he cites Oliver Stone and Saving Private Ryan as influences—and plenty of raunchy humor, some of which is directed at the country's leaders. "I almost died from laughing," says Said, a spike-haired 20-year-old, after a recent showing. "There were jokes in this movie that you don't hear in public." Perhaps more important, Dehnamaki has struck a deep nationalistic chord by showing Iranians with different political viewpoints sniping and fighting but ultimately cooperating in the film for the sake of national unity. In the last scene of Ekhrajiha 2, Iranian POWs line up, under the watchful eyes of Iraqi guards, and a band begins to play "Ey Iran," a beloved pre-revolution anthem that's rarely performed in public. At a recent showing of the movie in Tehran, a handful of misty-eyed audience members stood up to salute as the POWs sang onscreen. Since the movie came out on March 21, long lines and packed movie houses—some featuring folding chairs in the aisles to cram in more moviegoers—have become the norm. At one prominent roundabout in south Tehran, three theaters facing each other are all showing the movie, and each is selling out. "You must first draw the audience to the theaters," Dehnamaki, 40, says with a wry smile. "And then you can talk to them about certain things."
Dehnamaki's mix of Western style and distinctly Iranian themes isn't on display only in movie theaters. In recent years, young Iranian artists have begun infusing their works with many more homegrown motifs. An exhibit currently at the Araan gallery in north Tehran highlights the digital drawings of Arash Hanaei, which show scenes from the religious festival of Ashura along with the tombs of war martyrs. The effect is jarring. One piece is a reproduction of a huge martyr's mural from a prominent Tehran street, but done in a graphic style, like a panel from a comic book. On a recent afternoon a number of hip young gallery hoppers, decked out in tight jeans and loose-fitting scarves, sipped tea and checked out the artworks, some of which have sold multiple prints. Several musicians are also gaining a huge following by blending Iranian and Western styles and touching on issues that hit home with younger listeners: drug addiction, corruption and an oppressive social environment. At the top of the pack is Mohsen Namjoo, a 33-year-old musical prodigy from the small town of Torbat-e Jam who's studied classical regional instruments like the dotar and sitar. Namjoo mixes traditional sounds with Persian poetry and rock and blues beats in songs that are often thinly veiled critiques of the Iranian government. "Whenever I've wanted to laugh at the contradictions in my society," Namjoo writes on his Web site, "I use the laughter and playfulness of the blues scale and its singing style. I blend it with the Iranian scale and singing style." His music has become so popular with Iranian youth that reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has adopted Namjoo's song "Hamrah Sho" (which translates as "Come Along") for his campaign. "It's a cultural morass," says Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a professor of sociology at Tehran University. "The youth will listen to a local singer, they'll listen to religious singers during Ashura and they also listen to black-market stuff. It's really amusing."
For his part, Dehnamaki, a slightly built man with a quiet demeanor, draws on his own experiences in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq War for Ekhrajiha 2 and its predecessor, Ekhrajiha. He's never had any formal film training—a fact that irks the filmerati in Tehran, who regularly pick apart his movies' technical shortcomings in op-eds and TV interviews—and his background is about as far removed from the arts as can be imagined. He ran away to join the military at the age of 16 and spent three years on the front lines during the war, where he was wounded by mortar fire and exposed to mustard gas. After convalescing at a Tehran hospital in 1986, Dehnamaki ran away to the front lines again. Two years later his unit was one of the first to cross the Iraqi border and enter Halabja, shortly after Saddam Hussein's Army gassed the town's. "It was horrific," Dehnamaki says, shaking his head. "It was a normal town, where everything appeared normal, there were cooking pots on the fire, but there's no one breathing. The birds are dead, the animals are dead, the people are dead. It's one of my most bitter memories." These painful experiences helped Dehnamaki build a deep sense of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. "The friendships of that era made you feel like you had known each other for 100 years. It's indescribable," he says. "The war has been over for 21 years, but we still get together often. Some of the guys have prosthetic legs, prosthetic arms or glass eyes. But what's interesting is, when we get together, we only laugh."
The Ekhrajiha movies follow the adventures of a band of wisecracking misfits who bumble their way to the front lines. There's a drug addict, a pickpocket and petty con men in the group. A goodhearted cleric seems to be the only voice of reason in the movies, tolerating the group's raunchy songs and off-color jokes. The movies take slight jabs at the clergy and the government, but the bulk of the humor is crass, and the scenes showing the characters' camaraderie and nationalism often cross over into melodrama. In the first film, a thug named Majid Suzuki heads off to war to impress his sweetheart, and his neighborhood buddies dutifully follow. That movie broke box-office records in 2007, until a bootleg DVD siphoned away more profits. The sequel picks up where the first movie left off, with the gang being overrun by Iraqi soldiers and thrown into a POW camp. While they're in the camp, one group of POWs sells out another and there seems to be just as much animosity between the Iranians as there is toward the Iraqi guards. For years the Iranian government has funded an entire genre of movies, called Defae Moqadas or Holy Defense, which show Iranian soldiers as flawless holy warriors. In his two Ekhrajiha films, Dehnamaki shatters that myth and shows the soldiers as flawed but real people. "I know the war from the bunkers and being beside people like this," he says. "So my viewpoint is not the same as the commanders."
The portrayal has obviously resonated with audiences. In some working-class neighborhoods of south Tehran, viewers come back again and again to cheer the soldiers' goofball antics or to sing along with the anthem at the end of the film. Analysts in Tehran say that at least part of the movies' popularity is due to the broad appeal of the sort of populist working-class ethics espoused by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ethics that Dehnamaki embraces in both films. Ahmadinejad and Dehnamaki have similar backgrounds: both grew up in Narmak, a working-class neighborhood in southeast Tehran, and both headed off to war at a relatively young age. "When you have the rule of populism over society, this is one of the results," says a prominent film critic, who asked not to be named because it could jeopardize his work.
Perhaps predictably, Dehnamaki's high-profile success with Ekhrajiha 2 seems to have only added to his list of critics. Some are military veterans displeased with his less-than-reverent portrayal of the war. Said Abu Taleb, a parliamentary adviser, served in the war with Dehnamaki and was with him during an offensive to capture the Iraqi city of Basra in 1987. When the first Ekhrajiha came out, Abu Taleb went to see it with Dehnamaki. "As I was watching the film, I got angry," he says. "I kept turning to him and cussing him out. I said, 'What is this, you idiot?' " They've stayed friends, but Abu Taleb refuses to see Ekhrajiha 2, even though it's showing at a theater around the corner from his house. "I thought the movie was insulting to veterans," he says. "It's also an insult to the Holy Defense movies."
Then there are Iranians who refuse to see the film, or any of Dehnamaki's work, because of the director's personal history. After he came back from the war in 1988, Dehnamaki joined Ansar-e Hizbullah (Followers of the Party of God). The paramilitary group was accused of attacking student demonstrators, raiding movie theaters and harassing women who wore clothes they deemed immoral. During the '90s Dehnamaki also worked for extremist newspapers, some of which were accused of stoking violence against political activists. He's fond of pointing out that one newspaper, Shalamcheh, was shut down by reformist politicians, and another, Jebhe, was shut down by conservatives. Still, for those who knew him in the '90s, the unpleasant memories linger. "I was on the receiving end of some of Mr. Dehnamaki's verbal attacks," says Seyed Ali Abtahi, a cleric who served as vice president under President Mohammad Khatami. "He was one of the guys who was told, 'Beat this guy' or 'Beat that guy,' and he didn't even ask why—he beat them."
Dehnamaki says he has no regrets about his past. "I defend anything I did myself," he says. "And reject any lies." He insists two principles—"justice and fighting corruption"—have been the driving force throughout his career. That sense of justice drove him to make his first movie, Poverty and Prostitution, a controversial documentary that featured interviews with several prostitutes. The movie was banned, but bootleg copies were widely circulated around the country. Still, critics say that if it weren't for Dehnamaki's background, he would never have been able to make this documentary or to challenge the taboos of the Iran-Iraq War in the Ekhrajiha movies. Dehnamaki takes the criticism in stride. "They can't accept that someone newly arrived has been able to break the historic cinema records of Iran," he says with a smile. "And that without even studying film."
Today, Dehnamaki's career path shows some similarities to that of a far more famous Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. As a young man, Makhmalbaf was also a member of an Islamic militia, obsessed with issues of social justice. But Makhmalbaf has distanced himself from that past and now lives mostly outside Iran. By comparison, Dehnamaki just seems to have taken a stylistic step away from his militia days—but even that step speaks volumes. "Someone who used insults and shouting to get his message across has now moved on to something more sophisticated," says Abu Taleb. "Someone who wanted to push his views by force is now using art. That's very important." And millions of Iranian youth, drawn in by the movies' homegrown appeal, are watching.