FILM / Just for laughs: Islam has its funny side. As David Nicholson discovered at the Rotterdam Film Festival

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'There were no Iranian comedy movies before 1340,' began Naser Zeraati, and you thought, well yes, I should think not. But here, as for most of a challenging afternoon exploring comedy in Islamic film at the 22nd Rotterdam Film Festival, you had to think ahead. The Islamic calendar is around 600 years behind the West, and its concept of amusement in the cinema is barely more advanced.

Take Pickpockets Don't Go To Heaven, screened prior to the discussion. Complete with a battle-axe mother-in-law and luckless thieves, it was Iran's top box-office mover of (our) 1992, a result, Zeraati said, of 'a sadness hanging over the country since the Iran-Iraq war. Cinema is the cheapest and easiest way to escape the problems of life. It's just about the only way for young people to have fun.'

This fun is a serious business for its manufacturers. 'We have to submit treatments and scripts to the ministry for culture,' explained Abolhassan Davudi, director of Pickpockets. 'Then we are supervised throughout the production, and finally we present the finished film for certification.' Most importantly, besides avoiding all sex (even a mere touch between members of the opposite sex), violence and political reference, every film must 'abide by Islamic law'. This unwritten constitution is enforced by the censors with an enthusiasm that would have impressed Stalin.

'The Festival's idea was to challenge the perception of Islamic culture being ruled by despots and mullahs,' says a Rotterdam Festival rep. It was an ambition not altogether realised - though, that's perhaps not surprising when you see the restrictions under which film-makers work. 'They live in fear of things being reported back,' another Festival organiser conceded. 'Every time they see a moustache, it could be an agent.'

But the film-makers have become adept at side-stepping limitations; censorship itself 'can work to your advantage' according to Dariush Farhang, whose Two Features with One Ticket was shown at Rotterdam. 'You can show a man leaping on to another man instead of kissing a woman.'

It's true that, with such strict parameters, almost any hint of impropriety can be found hysterically funny. Pickpockets Don't Go to Heaven raised a belly laugh among the Islamic audience in Rotterdam when a character briefly eyed up a woman in purdah, while the sight of a bedroom drew gasps from a teenage Iranian boy sitting behind me. One of the few good lines, at least for Western sensibilities, had the pickpocket saying: 'I promise to satisfy you in any way you want' (to a cow).

Egyptian comedies were also spotlighted at the Festival - in particular the work of Sharif Arafa, whose Terrorism and Kebab was a hit at last year's event. Hotch Potch, screened this year, consolidated the director's reputation locally. It satirises British domination of Egypt under King Farouk, but even with this apparently patriotic intention was repeatedly thwarted during production by officials demanding bribes. 'The situation in Egypt has eased for film-makers,' said Arafa, 'but we must still work with care.'

Attending a festival such as Rotterdam, which prides itself on ultra-libertarian criteria for acceptance, must be eye-opening for most Islamic visitors. A film in which a gay man attempts to penetrate his lover using his head was the talk of the town this year. It is safe to assume that this will never be big in Baghdad: apart from clearly breaching the Islamic censor's rules on sex and violence, it does not have an (obligatory) happy ending.