First Case, Second Case is a crucially important film, a chilling look at the struggle of a nation in crisis.
The classroom has long been a favorite location for Iranian cinema. From the children in the leper colony of “The House Is Black” (1963) to director Sohrab Shahid Saless’s 1974 feature A Simple Event, which Abbas Kiarostami has cited as an influence, to Asghar Farhadi’s recent success The Salesman, many of the best-known Iranian films feature a schoolroom. Over the years, as the reign of the Shah gave way to the Islamic Republic, you can see the tone of these didactic scenes change, as does the behavior of the students. Well-behaved children learning by rote, a photo of the Shah obligingly hanging in front of the classroom, gradually become more restless students. In a 1979 documentary, Kiarostami looks at this increasing unrest at a fateful period in Iranian history.
First Case, Second Case is structured as a simple argument, with fictional examples followed by discussion. It begins in a classroom. A teacher takes his time drawing an elaborate illustration on the chalkboard (appropriately enough, it’s an ear). With the teacher’s back to the class, a student makes a disruptive banging noise. When the noise continues, the teacher orders the last two rows of students out of the classroom, to be suspended from school for a week unless one of them turns in the culprit.
Kiarostami shows two possible outcomes. In the first case, a student turns in his classmate after two days of suspension. In the second case, the students remain in solidarity and refuse to turn in the noisemaker. What makes this film so intriguing is the subsequent discussion.
The bulk of the film consists of Kiarostami’s interviews with adults who have seen these cases. Although the classroom setting is fictional, Kiarostami interviews the student actors’ parents as if they were watching a real life scenario. The parents come from various walks of life, and their varying reactions are fascinating. A Navy colonel insists that the students shouldn’t snitch on each other. A working-class parent who struggles to send his child to school thinks the student should very well turn in his classmate because the disruption hurts the whole class. Officials from Kanun, the state education agency for whom Kiarostami made most of his early films, support solidarity as well, while other officials blame the teacher for putting his students in such a position.
A film like First case, Second Case poses a universal ethical dilemma that could easily be transferred to a schoolroom of American children. Yet this film was made at the cusp of the Iranian revolution, at a time when the national culture encouraged state loyalty and espionage. This seemingly benign educational drama was caught in history in a way that would seem impossible in America. Kiarostami wrapped up shooting the film in January 1979, and at the time it featured commentary by educational experts who worked under the Shah. Days after the film was completed, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and declared an Islamic Republic. Kiarostami reshot the film’s commentaries to include members of the new regime, yet the film was still banned and remained out of circulation for decades.
Would American children of any era watch a documentary where one of its interview subjects was summarily executed? That was the fate of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the head of state television who instituted broadcast censorship in Iran, and who in 1982 was executed for allegedly plotting against his longtime ally, Khomeini. For reasons beyond its merits as cinema, First Case, Second Case is a crucially important film, a chilling look at the struggle of a nation in crisis.