Over the weekend, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami passed away at age 76. You've probably never heard of him. Kiarostami won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for his film A Taste of Cherry. He raised the stature of Iranian cinema on the world stage and shepherded other filmmakers starting their careers. I knew of his work from a class I took in Iranian films in college.
His movies are not easy to watch- especially if you're used to the whizz-bang! of Hollywood and its imitators. They're slow and meditative, with exceptionally long takes. If you give them a chance, they are very rewarding.
One recurring point for every film we saw in class was the way Kiarostami and his colleagues had to work within the censorship rules of the Iranian government. This isn't the ratings board- if the censors say so, your movie won't be released, and you might be banned from filmmaking.
Kiarostami's work often blurs the line between fiction and reality: he uses non-professional actors, using their real names, often reenacting things they've already done. This appealed to me especially when I was deep in my metafictional phase in college, where anything and everything had to be self-referential.
The censorship rules add another layer: An Iranian woman must always have her hair covered when she's in public. Because a movie is "public," your leading lady will wear a headscarf even when she's at home with her family, when wearing one makes little sense.
The rules governing relationships between men and women are especially strict. In one of my favorite films from this class, Leila, directed by Dariush Mehrjui, the two main characters play a married couple, and are married to each other in real life, yet couldn't even hold hands or kiss on screen.
Yet these restrictions inspired creative work-arounds in Kiarostami and his contemporaries. You can see this in my favorite film of his, Through The Olive Trees, which has one heck of an ending: We have a potential romance between Hossein and Tahereh. They try to figure out their feelings for each other, but are pulled apart by both her family and the film shoot their participating (another Kiarostami film, Life, and Nothing More..., filmed two years earlier.)
Only in a distant wide shot, as Hossein chases after Tahereh through a grove of olive trees, out of earshot of the voyeurs, both us and the censors, are they finally able to have an intimate conversation.
What do they say? Well, you'll just have to watch the movie.