A different view of Iran's soldiers

Times Staff Writer

The plot may seem familiar: A group of wayward and foulmouthed young men volunteer to go to the front because of their devotion to their bomber-jacket-wearing ringleader. They are wisecracking, rude and undisciplined, singing bawdy songs and breaking prohibitions against smoking and gambling. But eventually they become heroes, proving themselves on the battlefield.

But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, such a less-than-holy depiction of the men who fought the "War of Sacred Defense," as the 1980s conflagration with Iraq is sometimes called, was groundbreaking.

Director Massoud Dehnamaki's iconoclastic 2007 film, "Ekhrajiha," or "The Rejects," struck a deep chord among Iranians accustomed to seeing the war that transformed the country as a noble cause fought by pious Muslim recruits.

Dehnamaki, a war veteran turned hard-line militia leader turned rabble-rousing newspaperman turned would-be Oliver Stone, says he was inspired by his love of war movies such as "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan" to write and direct what would become the most popular Iranian film of all time, and the first to spawn a sequel, which began casting in July.

"This film shattered a cliche and made it clear that the War of Sacred Defense was not limited to a special stratum," Dehnamaki says. "Everybody was involved."

With tensions building between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear program, Dehnamaki's film also contains an inherent warning for America: The same seemingly irreligious and materialistic Iranian youth the West is banking on to eventually moderate Iran will defend their country against any foe.

The movie questions the very myths about war upon which the Islamic Republic rests: namely, who from Iranian society fought in the war, out of which strata they hailed and why they fought. As the hero, Majid, risks his life to walk through a minefield to clear the way for an offensive, the images rushing through his head are not fantasies of 72 virgins in heaven, but a shot of the woman he loves, his memories from a stint in prison and a grandfatherly cleric back in Tehran.

"If the country is attacked, everyone will go to war to defend it," Dehnamaki says. "All of them love their nation."

Just as Vietnam shaped the domestic politics and international policies of the U.S. for decades, the Iran-Iraq war, which ended 20 years ago Aug. 20, continues to play a profound role in Iranian society, politics, foreign affairs and even filmmaking.

Tensions between Iran and Iraq stretched back decades, centuries if you count the struggle between the Ottoman and Persian empires for control over the Middle East.

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein's troops crossed the Iran-Iraq border. Despite the warnings of some of his advisors, Hussein was convinced that he could quickly seize oil-rich territory and weaken the zealous Shiite Muslim clerics who a year earlier had declared an Islamic republic in Iran.

Instead, Iranians rallied behind their new leaders and fought back, eventually bringing the war to Iraqi territory and solidifying popular support for the ruling clerics.

Fearful of an Iranian victory, the U.S. and Arab states began overtly and covertly backing Hussein while ignoring his excesses, which included using outlawed chemical weapons on soldiers and civilians. The casualties mounted. Missiles struck cities. Hospital wards filled with the wounded and amputees. Mothers and wives shrieked in grief over fallen loved ones. Cemeteries devoted entire sections to the fighters.

Like Stone, Dehnamaki served in the war he chronicles. At 16, in the mid-1980s, he defied his parents and went to the front. Within a few months he was wounded, but insisted on going back to fight once he had recovered.

He eventually rose to become a commander of the Basiji militia, the religiously motivated and lightly armed volunteers who raced across minefields in human wave attacks on Iraqi positions.

The characters in his movie resemble those he led, he says. They were good-humored, smart-aleck toughs, some of whom volunteered to go to battle on a whim and wound up finding faith and meaning on the front. He keeps in touch with his soldiers.

"Some of them were martyred and some others are living their normal lives," he says.

By the time the war sputtered to an end, as many as a million lives had been lost in a conflict that profoundly changed both countries.

In Iraq, the war's dynamics sharpened the divide between the Sunni Arab government in Baghdad and the country's pious Shiites and rebellious Kurds, both culturally or religiously close to Iran, defining the battle lines in the civil conflict that would engulf the country after Hussein was toppled in 2003.

In Iran, the war became the ideological underpinning of the Islamic Republic, as well as the justification for the state's repression. Major and minor streets were renamed after soldiers who lived there and died in the war. The conflict created a divide between those perceived as having sacrificed relatives at the front and those who didn't.

Dehnamaki, a small man with a scraggly beard, seems to pick up fashion tips from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he supports. He and the Iranian president grew up in the same east Tehran district.

After the war, Dehnamaki joined an extreme right-wing militia called Ansar-e Hezbollah, infamous for cracking down on rebellious students and women who wore immodest clothes.

He was an angrier man back then, he says. But his views mellowed. Partly because his audience has changed, he says. He's now speaking to ordinary people rather than government officials or students.

"I was more into religious stuff," he explains, hunching in on himself as he talks, lowering his head and moving his lips ever so slightly as if confiding secrets. "Now, I'm the father of a daughter. I have a different audience."

He worked for a while as a journalist, publishing newspapers sharply critical of both the business-minded clerics who dominated Iran during the 1990s and the reformists who tried to liberalize it. He accused them of corruption and betraying the ideals of the revolution.

After his papers were shut down for being too extreme, Dehnamaki turned his hand to documentary filmmaking, directing the underground movie "Poverty and Prostitution," about women forced to sell their bodies out of desperation.

Denied official approval, it became a bootleg sensation, helping secure his reputation as a moviemaker. Then he pitched "The Rejects," despite opposition to the script from some military leaders and Iranian cineastes.

The film delighted young moviegoers but outraged some conservatives. Dehnamaki says authorities immediately tried to counter the film's myth-busting, trotting out former soldiers who questioned his take on the war.

"Certain groups who want to keep the war for themselves were angry at the realities shown in the film," he says.

Still, it became the highest-grossing Iranian film ever, with ticket receipts totaling $2.5 million. Several million Iranians viewed it in theaters, and uncounted numbers bought unlicensed DVDs or downloaded it off the Internet until television showed the controversial film in its entirety.

"The Rejects II," the sequel, will explore another touchy topic; it will take place almost entirely in an Iraqi prison where Iranian soldiers were held.

Iranians, he says, have rarely shown defeat in war movies.

"In our films about the war, we had always depicted the Iraqi army as fearful soldiers who fled our 'God is great!' cries," he says. "But I believe the contrary. The Iraqi army was very powerful. I saw its strength during the conflict."

His movie shows how far Iran would be willing to go for its rights, he says. Despite Iraq's strength, and the fact that "the whole world stood by Saddam, not even an inch of the Iranian territory was lost to them," he says.

"Our youths went to battle the enemy for religion and patriotism," he says. "The war that was imposed on us was aimed at toppling the Islamic Republic and people had understood it.

"Those same people who fought are now pushing the country toward progress."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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