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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. 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. 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. 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.