The United Kingdom selects a Farsi language film, set in the heart of Iran, as its entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. Winners — directed by Scotland-based filmmaker of Persian descent Hassan Nazer — had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where it won the Audience Award. The film also received the Best Film Award at the Raindance Film Festival, as well as the British Independent Film Award and Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards.
Winners is the Cinema Paradiso of Hassan Nazer, who projects on the silver screen his childhood and love for moving pictures. The story is set in Padeh, a dry land area where children work hard to support their families. One day an elderly postal worker handles a very special delivery that falls off his vehicle and is dropped in the Iranian wasteland. While he runs the risk of being accused of theft, the object is serendipitously found by nine-year-old Yahya (Parsa Maghami) and his friend Leyla (Helia Mohammadkhani). The two children admire their finding: a golden statue portraying a knight rendered in Art Deco style holding a crusader’s sword standing on a reel of film. It’s an Oscar statuette. Yahya and Leyla are unaware that they’ve recovered Asghar Farhadi’s 2017 Award for The Salesman — who did not attend the 89th Academy Awards ceremony to boycott the U.S. Executive Order 13769 also known as the “Muslim ban”, that was issued under the Presidency of Donald Trump.
The children don’t know what this precious “doll” is; they even put clothes on the Oscar to cover the immodest nudity of the figure. This amusingly contrasts with Yahya’s passion for cinema, instilled by his cinephile friend Saber (Hossein Abedini) who secretively gives him DVDs, whilst working for Naser Khan (Reza Naji). There is a nod to this actor who won the Silver Bear Award at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival for his role in The Song of Sparrows, as we see that also a statuette of the German accolade makes an appearance in Winners.
Several characters who come across the Oscar ignore its significance. This state of nescience makes the homage to Iranian cinema even more powerful, as it intertwines with themes of belonging, self-expression and human rights. For instance, child labour is not questioned in this forgotten Middle-eastern land, where children toil for scrap-metal dealers as if they were participating in a treasure hunt set in a landfill. This portrayal of underage exploited workers, who live their day to day routines without anyone questioning their life conditions, makes a vigorous statement of how the world is out of touch with certain realities.
This strongly connects with the journey of the Oscar that gets lost, found and sooner or later should arrive to its proper destination. The award represents the schism between the Iranian filmmakers who are acclaimed worldwide for their work and the strong opposition they suffer in their home country. In point of fact, Winners is dedicated to Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Maijdi and Jafar Panahi (the latter’s film No Bears emphasises the current situation of censorship and obscurantism in Iran). Also Panahi gets tributed in Hassan Nazer’s film, with a playful moment of metacinema that leads back to his 2015 film Taxi.
The social critique in Winners is extremely timely as it coincides with the protests of Iranian women cutting their hair, following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was incarcerated for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards. Most recently female filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi sent a lock of hair to the International Film Festival of Kerala since she was not allowed to travel outside of Iran; whilst Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti was arrested for supporting the protests against the execution of Mohsen Shekari. Hassan Nazer’s cinematic fable takes the denunciation of cultural and social repression further. Winners is an ode to all those Persian artists and thinkers whose progressive craft and freedom of expression is suppressed by a stifling regime.
The film beautifully written by Hassan Nazer and Hamed Emami, is a compelling modern fairytale also thanks to Arash Seifi and Arash Seyfijamadi. The directors of photography create a beguiling cinematography transforming the landscape of Garmsar into a dystopian environment, where the magic of cinema manages to timidly advance. Twenty years after first arriving in Scotland, Nazer brings us his first feature 100% financed in Scotland, with Jennifer Armitage as Executive Producer, supported by producers Nadira Murray (Sylph Productions, Edinburgh) and award-winning Glasgow-based Paul Welsh (Edge City Films/DigiCult). The shared efforts of the production team of Winners conveys how the world of motion pictures — even in the most remote and undeveloped setting — can be a bridge to connect communities through the advocacy of freedom of conscience.
Final Grade: A