Iranians have made movies for nearly a century. But imagine Hollywood trying to work in a country where women cannot show their hair in public and even a handshake between the sexes is forbidden public behavior.
The Islamic Republic has a thriving popular movie industry, dominated by violent action pictures. But it is also producing films winning international respect.
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival this year for "Taste of Cherries." Time magazine, writing about Cannes in early June, even called Iranian cinema "newly hip."
Mr. Kiarostami is both an exception in Iranian moviemaking - "He has a special humanistic view of the world," says Iranian journalist Ramin Jahanbegloo - and an influential trendsetter.
He does not approve of the restrictions placed on filmmakers by Iran's Islamic government, but says they have had their uses nonetheless: "I think they improve the quality of my work."
Interviewed at his Frank Lloyd Wright-style home of wide, low rooms, expansive tables, and rich Persian carpets, he shares the view of many in Iran that serious filmmaking has become better since the fundamentalist revolution in 1979. The religious limitations have pushed filmmakers to explore richer, more imaginative means of expression.
"If the rest of the world lived under our limitations, there would be no films at all for a while," he says.
The best American movies were silent movies, he says. "There was no violence in Charlie Chaplin's films. Kissing had a different meaning. Faces grew close. It was a symbol of love. Now it has no meaning."
If Islamic supervision has its benefits, it can also be sharply negative. Some respected Iranian directors have been barred from making a movie in Iran for years. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has not approved any of their scripts. Likewise, many of the most talented moviemakers of pre-revolutionary Iran fled the country in 1979 for France or Los Angeles. Their films are banned in Iran today.
Kiarostami had an easier adjustment. He began by making movies for and about children. His methods are distinctive, although they have created something of a trend here. In 30 films, including 10 feature-length movies, he has never used a professional actor. He conceives characters and writes scripts for his movies. Then he goes out to find real people similar to the characters. This choice is the most important, because once it is made, "instead of changing them, you have to change."
Nonprofessional actors must be taken as seriously as Marlon Brando, he says. Most of his leads have been children.
"I give every actor the role of playing himself. It's very easy and very hard. I follow them and make them follow me. It's the combination that makes the movie successful."
"It's a different kind of film," he says. "It's not focused on the actors, but on the moral."
The creative limitations he works around often have more to do with money than with religious or political dicta. "The investment in my film was equal to that of one minute" of the cost of American and European films he competed against in Cannes, he says.
For instance, he needed a helicopter in one scene, but they are only permitted in movies made for the government. So instead of the actual helicopter, he just used its sound. It was more evocative than the helicopter itself might have been, he says, and it gave him the idea of using sounds of things rather than the thing itself in other instances.
"It was admired by some critics, and they didn't know it came from a limitation," he says. "Any limitations that lead you to think more will lead you to solutions."