Hassan Nazer's 'Winners': Iranian metatextuality and the moral dilemma of art

Hassan Nazer's 'Winners': Iranian metrosexuality and the moral dilemma of art
5 min read
05 May, 2023

Iranian film is often characterised by metatextuality, with filmmakers writing themselves into the script, lifting scenes from the greats of cinema, or using the trials and tribulations of Iran’s most renowned directors as the catalyst for the plot.

Though metatextuality was first used in films like Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 Close Up to break the fourth wall, in later years, metatextuality has more frequently been used to express the moral dilemma of art.

A prime example is No Bears, a film-in-a-film released late last year, where Jafar Panahi acts as himself as he directs a film about a couple fleeing Iran for Europe.

As his film goes off course and his presence in the community causes tension, the viewer questions whether his films are an act of rebellion or a self-interested project that only risks others. Is he platforming resistance or endangering its people?

"It’s comforting to watch an Iranian film whose focus is Iran’s potential rather than the deep rot that has set in thanks to the regime"

It’s miles away from Panahi’s earlier works such as Taxi, made in defiance of the regime that banned him from acting in films in 2011. Gone is the rebellious levity of his previous work; a fear of complicity seems to have taken its place.

But Winners is the affirming counter to No Bears that states, adamantly, there is a role for cinema, and that art remains a social good. As Hassan Nazer, the film’s director, tells The New Arab, "Cinema is a universal language," and it’s his "duty" to use it to support Iranian society.

The film tells the story of Yahya and Laila, children who earn a pittance by rummaging through rubbish at a disposal plant to sell plastics, and by chance find Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar statuette, which has become misplaced en route to Farhadi after he boycotted the ceremony in protest of Trump’s Muslim Ban.

It’s a vignette taken from real life in the metatextual tradition – and also a reference to what Nazer describes as the "incredible pressure" that even Iranian cinema’s most illustrious characters, such as Farhadi, live under.

This is a theme explored elsewhere in the film; actors Reza Naji and Hossein Abedini, the former a Silver Bear winner who beat Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor, play themselves in the film, living cameo lives as workers in the disposal plant to escape the pressures of fame.

Nazer explains that this was in large part reflective of Naji’s experience. ‘In Iran, many actors became famous overnight which comes with its own kind of pressure,’ he told The New Arab. "After the Berlinale, Naji was widely perceived as 'too expensive' to cast, but he always says he would work without money. He loved acting that much."

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It’s a reminder of the impetus that Iranian filmmakers feel to continue to make art, despite the censorship of the regime and the very real threat upon them (after serving 8 months of his prison sentence of 6 years, Panahi was released in February, 48 hours into his hunger strike). As Reza Naji comments in the final scene about Panahi, ‘cinema is in his blood, like how you can’t separate a child from their mother’.

Unspoken is that Nazer likely feels the same; Winners’ certificate for release was revoked by the regime due to the final scene, in which Jafar Panahi makes an appearance (not himself, of course, but an actor mimicking Panahi in Taxi). Nazer is still waiting for his permit to be approved for his next project after one rejection thus far.

"That’s why I’m trying to be a voice for the filmmakers of Iran", Nazer tells The New Arab. "Artists are some of the most vulnerable members of Iranian society. Because I live abroad I’m heard much more." But despite the hoops that filmmakers must jump through, all is not lost, Nazer argues. He quips that the regime’s censorship hasn’t managed to kill Iranians’ appetite to make and consume film, it’s only posed a challenge that has succeeded in making Iranian film so "unique" and therefore beloved on the international stage.

Winners does at times toy with the moral ambiguity that dogs No Bears.

There is an irony to Reza Naji and Hossein Abedini pontificating on film, surrounded by children undertaking dangerous, dirty, and demeaning work, whilst the main character’s mother, an Afghan refugee, struggles to make a living.

What role does art have when Iran is dogged by poverty and oppression?

But Winners emphatically answers cinema can redeem us. The film’s optimism is astounding and certainly goes against the trend. Recent releases Law of Tehran and Holy Spider which respectively delve into the war on drugs and the regime’s ideological obsession with sexual purification are representatives of a larger trend of Iranian filmmakers throwing caution to the wind on accusations of siah-namayi, a term used to disparage films that portray life under the Islamic Republic negatively.

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Nazer bucks the trend and evokes the style of Majid Majidi’s 1997 Children of Heaven (with many of the same actors that worked with Majidi, too).

It’s comforting to watch an Iranian film whose focus is Iran’s potential rather than the deep rot that has set in thanks to the regime. Winners isn’t ground-breaking, but perhaps it’s not meant to be: it’s a reminder of children’s astounding capacity to hope and dream.

As Yahya says, having left his village to go to Tehran to hand Oscar-winning Farhadi his award, "I didn’t know this would all happen from watching a DVD."

But it has, and it has for others too – Nazer himself used to rummage through rubbish to make ends meet, he tells The New Arab, getting told off by his father for staying up late watching Reza Naji in Children of Heaven – whom he now directs in a feel-good film about the power of cinema.

Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.

Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar