Commenting and Translating Abbas Kiarostami



Videos: Abbas Kiarostami

Text: Azin Feizabadi

A teacher is drawing a diagram of an ear on the blackboard, his back to the class. We see the students faces, in standby mode, the classroom is filled with boredom. We hear the sound of a pen banging rhythmically against a desk. The teacher is interrupted; each time he turns to the class looking for the source of the banging, the noise stops. This situation repeats several times. Finally, helpless and unable to pick up the culprit, the teacher tells the group of students sitting in the back corner of the room to leave the class. They are given an ultimatum to name the guilty one; until then, they are suspended from their studies. We see the students one by one leaving the class. They wait in front of the entrance, undergoing their punishment.

A voice over, counts off the days: Saturday, Sunday, Monday…

This scene is the basis for the short documentary ‘First Case, Second Case’, made by Abbas Kiarostami between 1979 – 1981 in Iran. There is not much information to be found about the exact dates and circumstances of this film’s production. We do not know whether the production of the film has started before or after the revolution. We don’t know whether the hybrid fiction-documentary format of the film was meant to be a conceptual framework from the beginning, or if the events and the aftermath of the Iranian 1979 revolution influenced the film’s structure. Kiarostami himself also doesn’t provide much information. This film indeed differs from the other projects that Kiarostami undertook under the commission of Kanoon* (Institution for the Educational and Intellectual Development of Youth and Children).

While the other short films of him produced by Kanoon were labeled as exemplary educational films, very similar to the scene and pedagogic problem shown in the first scene of ‘First Case, Second Case’, the more the film runs forward, we recognize the difference of tone and dramaturgical strategy between this film and his other projects. One thing we can be sure of with this film, is the life it has led since its production. The response to its premiere in 1981, and its consequent reappearance online in 2009. It is this story we’re here to tell.

It is important to note that the story of this film is very much constructed by its own content. The life of this film is dependent on what we see and what we hear in the film itself. During 1980 and 1981, Kiarostami invited various people to watch the above scene and he asked them their opinion. He projected the footage for the new educational minister, members of political parties (Leftist Tudeh Party, Democtratic National Front, Mojaheddin Khalgh etc.), famous actors, poets and novelists, filmmakers, children program moderators, Shia clerics as well as religious leaders from the Iranian Jewish and Armenian community. Most of them had difficulties to answer the questions he proposed:

‘What is your opinion about the reaction of the students? Should they hold on together and resist? Should they name the guilty one and go back to the class?’

The feedback, understandably, is as diverse as their various social, cultural and political backgrounds dictate. Shortly after its premiere at the Tehran Film Festival in 1982 ‘First Case, Second Case’ was banned by the authorities of the new-born Islamic Republic of Iran. Various reasons can be taken into consideration of this censorship. The most important reason lies behind the fact that the pedagogic problem which the film proposes had a strong symbolic value for the political circumstances of that time; namely a filtering program by a fraction of the Islamic Republic under the name of ‘Cultural Revolution’.

This filtering program consisted of purge, crackdown and arrests of members from other political groups in the chaos that followed the 1979 revolution. Their methods – similar to the disastrous pedagogic method of the teacher in the classroom scene of the film – were snitching, forced treason, forced confessions and forced whistle-blowing of targeted members from opposition parties against their own friends, family and comrades. By complying, they would receive lower prison sentences and reduced punishment. By refusing they were guaranteed life long prison sentences or the death penalty. ‘First Case, Second Case’ was considered lost for almost 30 years after being banned. It sat collecting dust in the basement archive of Kanoon, until it reappeared as a digital file on Vimeo and YouTube in June 2009. During this time the Iranian Green Movement was on the rise and the sociopolitical transformation in Iran was at its peak. No one knows about the persons, or group of people behind the leak of the film. Some rumors indicate that Kiarostami himself was behind the reappearance of the film, in same time, it is important to mention that Kiarostami does not own the rights to the film. The Vimeo channel under which the film was uploaded first is called Green Mind; the channel has uploaded only two videos, one is ‘First Case, Second case’, the other is a footage taken from the Australian TV News Program about a concert of Mohammad Reza Shajarian – a maestro of Persian Classical Dastgah music – in Sydney. Both videos were uploaded on the Green Mind channel in the summer of 2009.

‘First Case, Second Case’ can be downloaded directly from a link below the video, and has subsequently been uploaded to YouTube and various other hosting websites under a myriad of profiles and channels. I remember in 2009 when I first saw ‘First Case, Second Case’, I don’t remember exactly who posted it first on Facebook, but I remember my reaction was a mish mash of feelings ranging from excitement and shock – esteem, respect and anxiety, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia and over conscious strategic political thoughts, and interpretations about the past, present and the future. Most importantly, it was as if the last 26 years of my life were running in frames and sounds in front of me within 47 minutes. Even the prelife of mine, the time before my birth, the life of my parents, what I know about through their stories, photographs or what I have heard about their time around the 1979 Revolution, these all jumped up in front of me.

Although the preliminary intention for making the film was different than its current form, ‘First Case, Second Case’ is conceived as an in-detail-historical document about the Iranian post-revolutionary socio-political mindset. Although Kiarostami had not intended this, ‘First Case, Second Case’ projected its political urgency into its own future – approximately 30 years from its production date. In 2009, many politicians, intellectuals, artists, and activists as well as other citizens used this film for their studies and argumentations within the immediate Green Movement. Various aesthetic aspects in the film have caused this projection (or time travel); Simple elements like the fashion of the interviewees, their language and the kind of revolutionary dialect they use – the colors and the light of the scenes – or simply the combination of it all, captured on 16mm film.

It is a time capsule of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and in being so, it has contributed and intervened in the discourse of the Green Movement immensely. It awakened a dormant mindset, concealed for years by the mainstream medias inaccurate and self-serving depictions of the post revolutionary period by the powers that be. Naturally this has to do with the discourses spoken around throughout the rise of the Green Movement, namely and most importantly the reclaiming of the 1979 Revolution, its urgencies and agencies upon which our parents acted through. Their desires and manifesto, their goals and visions for the future – all of it forgotten or censored, rotting in the emotional archives of a downtrodden collective memory.

‘First Case, Second Case’ has been a pivotal political work – not because it uses political grammar and rhetoric or relies on an ideological framework – but for the exact opposite. This wonderful film lets the spectator experience the problems of our ideological structures for themselves. Through simply showing, and not telling, we see the complexities of Iranian politics, with its lack of emancipatory historiography. For ourselves, we can feel the pressures that have pushed us to the brink of amnesia.

Because of these and other reasons I translated and subtitled this film in English and share it now with you, to allow an audience beside Iranians to benefit from it artistically, intellectually and politically.


* It is important to mention that ‘Kanoon’ changed its path from an educational institution to a propaganda center within the 90´s and 2000’s. In the beginning of its initiation before the 1979 Revolution, and also after, during the 80s ‘Kanoon’ was considered as one of the most valuable educational programs, only partially related to governmental structures. In the 90’s many filmmakers, graphic designers, writers and artist left ‘Kanoon’ because of the shifting power structures within the intitution, transforming it into a fully state run facility.