Winners: a film screening with a difference

Pupils at Glendale Primary School got a taste of red carpet glamour at a special screening of Winners, hosted by the film’s director, Hassan Nazer. 

By Shona McCallum, Refugee Festival Scotland volunteer

*WARNIG! This article contains spoilers about the plot of Winners.

The screening of Winners at Glendale Primary School on the Southside of Glasgow was special indeed. We entered the school on a red carpet and took our seats. On a table in the centre of the stage, stood a table full of miniature Oscars awards. Most uniquely, many members of the audience surrounding us were children, who were all talking excitedly about the screening.

It began with a series of short films made by pupils from local primary schools, including Glendale, Pollokshields, and St Albert’s. Their films, inspired by the title Winners: For the love of cinema, were very fun. Many of them were in Gaelic.

Each of the short films then received awards, which were presented to the children by Hassan at ‘the first ‘Pollokshields Oscars’. His own film Winners, was the UK’s nomination for the international category in the Oscar’s last year.

After this introduction, we settled down to watch the main film itself.

Winners stars two untrained child actors, something which has precedent in other well-known Iranian films. The more cynical reason for this is that it enables film-makers to explore topics which would be censored if they were acted by adults. But it also introduces the fun, joy, and optimism with which children see the world. The later really comes across in Winners. It was clearly important to the film’s makers that it be shown to young people who might not otherwise see such a story.

Winners tells the story of Yahya, a young Afghan refugee growing up in rural Iran. Yahya loves cinema. Every night he stays up late to watch whatever films he can, much to his mother’s irritation. She chastises him: “Is watching films going to earn you any money?” When he is not at school or watching films, Yahya and his friend Leila pick through a landfill to earn pocket-money from the rubbish.

Yahya and his village have an unexpected cinematic experience which sweeps them up into the world of Iranian film. ‘Winners’ is bursting with references and crossovers to other Iranian films. The plot originates with Iranian director Farhadi, who in 2019 boycotted the Oscars ceremony in protest at Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’, which restricted travel from Iran and several other Muslim-majority countries. He won the award, and Nazer’s film reimagines the trophy’s journey to Iran.

Through a series of comedic mistakes – from being left in a taxi in Tehran, to being taken home ‘as a guest’ by a rural postal worker – the trophy ends up in Yahya and Leila’s village. The children adopt the statue, even clothing it in a blue dress belonging to Leila’s doll to make sure it is not naked. In a beautifully-shot scene, they give it a bath in a pool they are sitting in, to make sure it is not too dusty. Their childish curiosity about this new item, combined with their ignorance of its great cultural value, is truly charming.

As the authorities search for the missing Oscar, Yahya is making his own discoveries. When watching Iranian film, The Song of the Sparrows, he discovers that the old man who runs the land-fill is a famous actor. Reza Naji, who plays himself, is imagined to have fled the difficulties fame brought him to this remote, disconnected village. It emerges that he is also the owner of an international film trophy – the Silver Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival.

Hassan makes clear his point that cinematic beauty, and stories which deserve the screen, can be found anywhere and even in the most unexpected places. He makes us question whose experiences are reflected in film, and what we miss out on. He demonstrates beautifully that Winners can be found anywhere, with a love of films and a camera.

Yahya takes it upon himself to travel to Tehran to return the Oscar to Farhadi, its rightful owner. In a very cute and funny sequence, we see this young child venture into the big city. Upon arrival, he is picked up by a taxi. He and the driver discuss cinema, and it becomes clear that he was picked up by iconic director Panahi, who is banned from making films by the Iranian regime. Yahya, surprised by how much he knows, asks if he works in the cinema. Panahi coyly replies, “that depends on what you mean by ‘in the cinema’.”

The film closes without revealing if Yahya is able to return the trophy, letting the audience pick their own ending.

It is clear that Yahya and his story is inseparable from Hassan’s own. Hassan grew up in Iran, to a relatively wealthy family. He picked through rubbish as a boy to get money so he could go to the cinema. The film was set extremely close to his own childhood home. Since he was Yahya’s age, Hassan dreamed of becoming a film-maker. As a young man he came to Scotland as a refugee, settling in Aberdeen where he studied cinema. In recent years, he has produced a number of interesting and acclaimed films, often with extremely low budgets.

The team behind this film – which includes Nadina Murray and Paul Walsh – wanted to make clear that while this was a film made by refugees and filmed in Iran, it was “generated from Scotland.” This was true, right down to the music score, which was written by Scottish-Iranian, Mohsen Amini.

This film is a beautiful example of how cinema and other forms of art can overcome distance and difficult experiences, to create something which speaks to anyone who watches it. For the makers of Winners, it was important that this should include young people in Scotland.

They were clear that this is a happy story about Iran, and that such representation is necessary. To the young audience they explained: “Being a refugee it is already a sad story but you don’t need to do sad stories on screen; we believe in something positive.”

The film had a very positive impact on the audience, which included people who, like Yahya, had been forced to leave Afghanistan in search of safety. It was inspiring to hear Hassan’s own story, and see parts of it brought to life in Winners.

As Yahya reflects in one scene: “I didn’t think this would happen by watching a DVD”.