The best instance I´ve ever seen of film as philosophy. The set up is simple: whilst a teacher draws an ear on a board, a student in the back row drown him out drumming up noise with a pencil on a desk. Each time the teacher turns around to face the students the noise stops only to returns as soon as he turns his back. Exasperated, he asks who did it. Faced with silence, he tells the seven students in the two back rows that unless someone turns in the culprit, they will all be suspended for a week.
The fact that it is an ear the teacher is drawing is, as Ehsan Khoshbakht writes in the catalogue for Ritrovato 2019, significant in that it introduces the theme of listening/surveillance.
In the first case students express solidarity and no one denounces anyone. The film then goes on to ask each of the parents of the children whether they think their child did it; if so, whether they should turn themselves in; and if not, whether they should denounce their colleague or express solidarity. As each of the parents answers, the plot thickens, class allegiances are teased out, the moral dilemmas become denser, more complex. In this first section some politicians, artists, writers –even the leaders of Jewish and Christian communities also weigh in.
In the second case, one of the accused names the culprit and is allowed to return to the classroom. And in this section, along with the parents, educational experts, ministers, and celebrities from the first section, Kiorastami also includes the opinions of members of the new regime. Was it right for the student to break solidarity with his colleagues and inform? What is the price of having done so for him and for his colleagues. What is the price of solidarity and what is the price of informing? Is the teacher to blame for having set up a situation in which no one can possibly benefit?
The film was made in the mids of the Iranian revolution for the Institution for the Educational and Intellectual Development of Youth and Children. Filming started whilst the Shah was in power and ended after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared an Islamic Republic. The film was banned immediately after its premiere only to resurface almost thirty years later online and at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. Upon seeing it there Mehrzad Bakhtiar wrote that:
In addition to still-popular celebrities like Iranian actor Ezzatolah Entezami and filmmaker Masoud Kimiai, First Case, Second Case includes a cast of important political figures: Ebrahim Yazdi, for example, was an active member of the National Resistance Movement as well as the Freedom Movement of Iran. He became Foreign Minister after the revolution, only to step down in less than a year in opposition to the hostage crisis. Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, then director of the Islamic Republic’s Radio and Television Network, would replace Yazdi, only to be executed in less than a year for allegedly plotting to assassinate Khomeini. Other figures include Kamal Kharazi, who would become Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Khatami administration, and Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the notorious Revolutionary Court magistrate who sentenced a great number of former government officials to execution.
…The obvious, retrospective irony, of course — the element that makes this film even more compelling now than when it was made — is the sight of so many important figures supporting a revolution that would come to embody a totalitarian government, itself completely intolerant of the very same rebellion and resistance they promote in their films.´
Azin Feizabadi has written of how the film is a time capsule of the 1979 Iranian Revoultion and remains a pivotal political work:
‘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’
I did not know any of these experts or celebrities whilst watching the film. Or even much about the Iranian Revolution. And whilst such a knowledge certainly adds a layer of complexity to the film, it is not necessary to understanding the full moral force of the ideas being explored. A 46 minute film that gets richer, more complex, as it unfurls. A film rich in ideas whose viewing feels morally enriching. A great film.