In the last few years, Iranian popular cinema has become a bastion of civil opposition with a number of cheeky comedies. A new film, "The Outcasts" by Masud Dehnamaki, takes a particularly sensitive issue as the butt of its jokes: the Iran-Iraq war. By Amin Farzanefar
Following the sensational success of the divorce comedy "Atash Bas" comes another blockbuster which is breaking all the records in Iran: "Ekhrajiha" – "The Outcasts."
The film tells the story of Majid, fresh out of prison, as he returns to his neighbourhood pretending to have just come back from the pilgrimage to Mecca. As a "Hajji" he hopes to make an impression on Narges, the woman he is courting.
Rascals in the fight against Saddam Hussein's army
The deception is found out and, to make things worse, Majid's rival for Narges's affections volunteers for the front. Majid has no choice: he has to join a rag-tag troop on its way to defend the sacred soil of Iran from the Iraqi onslaught in the first Gulf war.
But already in the recruitment office there are problems matching the sacredness of the task with the people who are supposed to be carrying it out. Majid's troop is a band of hash-smoking, hard-swearing gamblers who ignore the proper times for prayers—good-for-nothings at the front.
This insult to the Iranian cult of the martyr is all the more surprising when one knows who the director of the film is. The journalist Masud Dehnamaki himself fought at the front, saw active service during the fierce battles for the Southern Iranian port city of Khoramshahr, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Islamic Republic.
It is true that the dissident film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was once a party propagandist, and it is even true that Kamal Tabrizi, the director of the cheeky mullah-comedy "Marmulak," has made war films in the past.
The director on the far right
But Dehnamaki is the publisher of a series of ultra-conservative magazines, and is a central figure in the "Ansar e-Hesbollah," an organisation of violent ultra-hardliners loyal to the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He has also used the "Basiji," a paramilitary volunteer force, to threaten dissident artists and writers.
These thugs were involved in the bloody crushing of student unrest in 1999 – and they seem to have had something to do with a plot to murder Said Hajarian, an adviser to the then president Mohamad Khatami.
So when Dehnamaki criticises, he does so from the far right wing: he attacks the relaxation of social standards under Ayatollah Rafsanjani and, even more, under President Khatami, and he understands the process of reform as a consequence of decadence, westernisation, espionage and cultural imperialism.
All the same, his documentary film "Faqr wa Fahsha" ("Poverty and Prostitution") drew attention for the first time to the taboo topic of prostitution. In order to make the film, Dehnamaki had to gain the trust of the poor and the prostitutes, and that meant he had to trim his beard and wear western t-shirts.
It seems as if he became aware that everything has become much worse under the current "scandal president." So it seem consistent that he is now tempted to distance himself publicly from the "sins of his youth."
Subtle propaganda masquerading as comedy?
So, against this background, is his joky film "Ekhrajiha" to be seen as a bold move of a reformed fundamentalist, or as a particularly subtle form of propaganda?
"The Outcasts" – like many Hollywood "anti-war" films, by the way – is a wolf in sheep's clothing: it starts from a harmless situation and appears to be critical of the system, but as it goes on it pulls the noose ever tighter.
The minor character of the Ayatollah has an interesting role in the plot – clerics do not have much of a reputation among city dwellers in Iran, and they are regarded as corrupt figures who have profited from the political system.
But in the film this representative of the state is set against a fundamentalist so rigid that, compared to him, everyone else seems like a moderate: while the fundamentalist Hisbollah fanatic wants to stop Majid from enjoying the sacred duty of going to the front, the Ayatollah wants to give everybody a chance: sweet and fitting is it to die for the fatherland.
The star producer Habibollah Kasesaz says straight out that he wants to use "The Outcasts" to boost the "Defa-ye Moghadass" genre – films about the Iran-Iraq war are now being given special financial assistance.
If that is the case, one could see Dehnamaki's work as a transition between the wave of cheeky comedies and a new ideological cinema.
Blood and soil
The reason for the surprising – for some, shocking – success of "The Outcasts" may lie in its "storm of film and dramatic effects," or in its all-star cast including Mohammad-Reza Forutan, Akbar Abdi and the up-and-coming Amin Hayayee, or in the slapstick humour which runs all the way through.
There is also the witty realism with which Dehnamaki portrays local detail, such as the "Jahelis," typical figures of the Teheran suburbs who once had a genre all their own, but who have long disappeared from Teheran cinema.
But they are not there for long in "Ekhrajiha" either: after the layabouts have been brought into line, the film ends unexpectedly. Majid and his friends die as martyrs and are bombed into paradise. The closing music is full of pathos, ending a story which began so lightly.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton