by Afra Nariman
Director: Hassan Nazer
Stars: Reza Naji, Hossein Abedini, Parsa Maghami, Heila Mohammadkhani, Malalai Zikria
Without revealing which characters this exchange is between; the following is possibly my favorite moment of dialogue from the film:
“You are in the cinema too?”
“That depends what you call ‘in the cinema.'”
A heartbreaking, reflective and layered moment.
Opening with a note of dedication to four of the great Iranian filmmakers — Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi — Hassan Nazer’s Winners lives up to its inspirations, embracing and celebrating the presence of their work and their voices. The film is consistently reflexive not only on itself, but upon Iranian cinema and its history. A love letter to all of cinema as well, Winners is a film full of heart; one that not only references, but actively recalls the magic of Cinema Paradiso.
Similar to the homework in Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home?, the pair of shoes in Majidi’s Children of Heaven; or the goldfish in Panahi’s The White Balloon; here, in Winners, the characters come across an equally simple plot device to center their adventures around: a lost Oscar statue. Following a series of unfortunate (or more accurately, fortunate) coincidences, the statue finds its way into the hands of two young children, one of which is a huge fan of cinema. And so, the story begins to unfold; and with it the facade of fame is shattered — i.e.: it is revealed that Oscar statues aren’t made of gold, a former actor expresses his disdain for fame, etc. — yet the wonder of cinema is forever maintained. Value is finally realized, both in the non-gold trophy, and by the former actor who learns to appreciate his experiences in cinema. (More on this former actor shortly).
Very much finding its mode of storytelling via the styles of Kiarostami, Panahi and Majidi; the first element one might look for when watching Winners, is how it follows the practice of Iranian cinema’s blend of fiction and reality. To start, Reza Naji, award-winning Iranian actor, famous for his roles in Majidi’s films, is the supporting star of this film. Here, he plays a version of himself, drawing from experiences and emotions that may or may not be the actor’s true perspective on the events that have shaped his life and career; though it is believably that of his character’s in Winners — and his character is gradually revealed to be that of the actor himself. He is the ‘former actor’ I alluded to earlier.
One of the other interesting threads of the film regarding its approach to blending fiction and reality, is the origin of the found Oscar statue. Especially early on, it is never technically made known which filmmaker won it. If Winners is to be read as taking place in our reality, then it would without a doubt be Farhadi’s Oscar. Though, if we’ve learned anything from the great Iranian filmmakers who this film is dedicated to, cinema has the power to lie, to make up stories or people, and to misdirect audiences. Keeping that in mind, the winner could be a fictitious director of the filmic world that the director of Winners, HassanNazer, could create. Throughout the film though, we are given clues as to how much of what we’re shown and told is connected to our reality.
One of the earliest clues is the acknowledgement of the “Trump situation” — that is, Trump’s travel ban on seven countries, including Iran — which led to Asghar Farhadi refusing to travel to the US (while other people from Iran weren’t allowed to) to attend the Oscars ceremony. While the specifics of the “Trump situation” aren’t detailed until the end-credits, if you are aware of the ban, and Farhadi’s subsequent boycott of the Oscars, you would see this as the first clue that this film likely takes place in our reality — specifically following Farhadi’s 2017 win for The Salesman — and therefore the statue in the film would be that prize. While this is a seemingly trustworthy clue (even without the details), Farhadi’s name isn’t spoken aloud in these referential moments of the film, and even during a scene where there is a search party for the statue and someone flips through various photos of Iranian directors who have won international prizes, Farhadi’s picture is not shown. Of course, not including Farhadi’s name and likeness may very well be for various logistical reasons; but nevertheless, his name’s exclusion allows the film to exist within a space between fiction and reality for a significant period of the film’s runtime. That being said, Farhadi is seemingly referenced in a relatively direct way on multiple occasions — i.e.: “our greatest artist” today, etc. And so, as other elements of the film begin to align themselves more and more with reality — such as, Reza Naji turning out to be playing himself — we do come to see the film’s world as ours, and the Oscar statue, definitively as Farhadi’s.
I do not want to go into further details about the rest of the film, as not to spoil it, but I will simply say that it ends in such a way that perhaps cements it’s world as ours, yet still illustrates the incredible power of cinema to misdirect and mislead us — leaving just enough wonder as to how truthful the final interactions that we see are. The end of Winners essentially has two “final scenes,” these interactions expressing the notion that cinema is only a snapshot of reality, but it is a part of reality nonetheless. The second ending could be interpreted as communicating the idea, in response to the first ending, that life goes on after the camera turns off. The inclusion and integration of its ending plays direct ode to the films of Panahi and Kiarostami; particularly recalling the endings of both Taxi and Taste of Cherry. With the support of its final scene, Winners ultimately establishes how integrated cinema is in the reality of Iranian life.
Winners is a reflection on time, fame, facades, cinema, and truth — and on the points in which these elements find themselves overlapping. While the film highlights the complexities of fame and shatters the facades of fame and filmmaking; it never neglects nor diminishes the importance of cinema in the search for truth; or the love that these characters/actors/filmmakers have for their medium. By its end, Winners ultimately doubles-down on the overarching theme of Iranian cinema, which is that cinema is an essential form of truth, and truth-seeking.
“I dedicate this award to my people and Iranian cinema.”Reza Naji
MY RATING /5:
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