Avaliha (First Graders, 1984) is a fascinating transitional work in Abbas Kiarostami’s career. Although it is, in many ways, a precursor to both Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is the Friend’s House?, 1987) and Mashgh-e shab (Homework, 1989), it is also strongly connected to the series of short documentaries the director made in the wake of the Revolution. Like many of the films made around it – often turning “on scenes of order and discipline”1First Graders focuses on the experiences, perceptions and growing social awareness of male schoolchildren leaving the “safe harbour” of early childhood. Partly inspired by Kiarostami’s questions about his own sons’ experiences at school, it also contains a characteristic preoccupation with paternal authority figures who are required to weigh up and balance the merits of punishment and reward, stick and carrot, society and individual.

Made under the auspices of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (commonly known as Kanun or Kanoon), as were many of Kiarostami’s films in the 1970s and 1980s, First Graders is more straightforward and less self-conscious than such celebrated subsequent movies as Homework and Nama-ye nazdik (Close-Up, 1990). Mostly only seen in the West in the wake of Kiarostami’s international emergence in the early 1990s, it has been criticised by some writers for its blatant paternalism, lack of self-awareness and for an unwillingness to interrogate its own processes of production and documentation. Unlike in Homework, Kiarostami has no direct presence or voice in the onscreen world of First Graders, the film mostly constructed out of the alternation between footage of the mass assemblies conducted in the schoolyard and the interrogation of a seemingly endless parade of minor offenders lined up against the stark wall of the principal’s office. In these exchanges there is little recognition of the presence of the camera – aside from occasional glances from the figures onscreen – and the cinema itself is less directly implicated in these processes of interrogation, control and power. On a surface level, First Graders appears to be a more objective type of documentary, with intermittent passages showing particular students leaving the school or, for example, a plastic bag drifting on the breeze, along with its apparent broader focus on “process”, drawing it closer to the institutionally-focused work of a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman. But it also has a much narrower range than many films in this tradition, providing a characteristically repetitive, rhythmic and carefully framed window on a limited set of situations, questions and repeated observations.

As many have argued, Kiarostami is both a social documentarian and a modernist. Aesthetically, First Graders has a closer alliance with smaller-scale earlier works like Ghazieh-e shkel-e aval, Ghazieh-e shkel-e  dou wom (First Case, Second Case, 1979). Nevertheless, several key writers on Kiarostami have criticised both the film’s “tentative”2 approach and its “exploitation of relatively powerless people carried out in the name of, and with all the intimidating power of, the cinema”3. But although First Graders does not overly complicate or narrativise this relationship between cinema and society in the manner that deepens across the director’s subsequent work, it does pick at the slippery nature of truth, storytelling, complicity and coercion. As Hamid Dabashi has argued: “The camera’s sympathy is neither with the confusion of disruption nor with the maintenance of order. Instead, Kiarostami seems to be particularly concerned with the nature of denial and the process of confession”4. These issues and questions were particularly significant in the wake of the Revolution, an era scarred by appallingly high levels of imprisonment and execution as well as the ongoing and overwhelming policing of the population. Although it focuses on a school in one of Tehran’s poorest districts, it is the overriding ritual of interrogation, confession and repentance that provides the film’s inexorable rhythmic pattern of repetition and variation, as well as its key social insights. In the various exchanges between principal and student, as well as in the dialogue between those brought before authority to recount and inform on their misconduct, one can glimpse a broader culture of confession, betrayal, interrogation and fear (and this is despite some of the assurances by the principal that he does not want to encourage a culture of informing). These correspondences between the world of children and adults are reinforced by the principal’s recurring refrain that on entering school the six or seven-year-old boys are now “grown up” and must take responsibility for their emotions, actions and moral decisions. For example, some boys are questioned about why they are crying in response to a particular line of questioning, while another is praised for tearing up because his friend will end up missing his lesson as a result of their summons to the principal’s office. This is some way from the more disturbing chants about Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq War in the assembly scenes of Homework, but it does get at the social engineering and incipient values found at the heart of pedagogy in First Graders.

First Graders opens with credits displayed over a blackboard as the chaotic sounds of children playing are combined with the urgent ringing of the school bell. This initial alternation between two sounds highlights the play between “disruption” and “social order” that will mark the broader film. These ideas are then reinforced in the opening assembly sequence where the principal asks his initially lively charges to keep quiet “otherwise you can’t understand where your place is”. This is then followed by a series of forced public introductions between children that further highlight the social order and modes of communication being promoted by the school, while also pinpointing the personal idiosyncrasies of the individual students (some of whom fail to adequately complete this simple task). Although the principal does seem to exhibit almost endless patience, displays fairness in his dealings with individual students in the rules he sets (such as a three or four strikes policy) and in his promotion of forgiveness, and seems willing to encourage a degree of playfulness as core part of school life, the film’s emphasis on the endless weighing up of the disruptive, mischievous and minor violent actions of the pupils – and the stories they spin around these – dominates our viewing experience. In the process, we do get some insight into the varied backgrounds and natures of the children and may be reminded of the formative insights into early childhood overplayed in Michael Apted’s Seven Up series. But First Graders is much more ambivalent in asking and answering these questions. Like other works by Kiarostami, it does make us question the relationships between reality and fiction, testimony and storytelling, childhood and adult life, authority and freedom of expression.

Avaliha/First Graders (1984 Iran 84 mins)

Prod Co: Kanun-e Parvaresh-e Fekri Kukadan va Nujavanan Dir, Scr: Abbas Kiarostami Phot: Homayun Payvar Ed: Nasser Ansari, Abbas Kiarostami Sound: Changiz Sayad


  1. Max Nelson, “The All-Seeing Eye: On Abbas Kiarostami”, Harper’s Magazine (June 2019): https://harpers.org/archive/2019/06/the-films-of-abbas-kiarostami/
  2. Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Belinda Coombes (London: SAQI, 2005): 61
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “First Graders”, Chicago Reader: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/first-graders/Film?oid=1070171. For reasons undoubtedly related to what he regards as the ironic distance and complex humanism found at the heart of Kiarostami’s best work, Rosenbaum expresses considerable dislike for First Graders. Although it lacks the nuanced approach Kiarostami finds in a film like Homework, First Graders is not a significant departure or shift in sensibility
  4. Hamid Dabashi, Close Up: Iranian Cinema , Past, Present and Future (London and New York: Verso, 2001): 62

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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