"Freedom of speech seems to be a global problem": Hassan Nazer talks about his film 'Winners'

The Iranian-born, Scotland-based filmmaker's love song to cinema is the UK's official submission to the 2023 Best International Feature Film Oscar race.
"Freedom of speech seems to be a global problem": Hassan Nazer talks about his film 'Winners'

If you love the magic of the movies then Hassan Nazer's film Winners is an absolute must-watch. It possesses the perfect blend of inside information, little nudges to filmmakers both alive today and unfortunately gone, cameos by film personalities in Iran and voiceovers from films we have all watched and loved. Along with a candid, charming tale of two kids who find a golden statuette, this makes Winners a perfect cinematic gift -- bestowed from the filmmaker to his audience.

The film is the UK submission to the Oscars this year, in the Best International Feature Film category and one understands why. Few films feature an Oscar already in their props, so the golden statuette is almost built into the film's history. Will it make the shortlist, and beyond? Inshallah, as they say. But while we await the announcement, I caught up with filmmaker Hassan Nazer, who also wrote the film and asked him a few questions about Winners, his own love of cinema and Iran, of course.

This is a story about an Oscar statuette going through different hands, so how did you come up with the people who would handle the statuette throughout this journey?

Hassan Nazer: I had the idea of Winners in mind long before Asghar Farhadi's Oscar story. This is basically the story of my childhood, loving cinema with my father who didn't want me to get involved in it and my mother supporting me. I had this idea of the story of a child having a love of the cinema and referencing all the movies and directors -- iconic directors of Iranian cinema like Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi. And this story stayed with me for quite a long time. Until Farhadi's issue with the Oscars happened and Panahi's situation got worse in Iran, being unable to have any activity in the film business, and I think that was the spark moment. When Farhadi wouldn't go to America to receive his Oscar due to Trump's travel ban, and his Oscar was delivered from Hollywood to Cannes to Iran. That's when I said I need to combine this as the world now knows the story and I should bring this into my own narrative. The idea started from 2017 and I began everything in 2018.

What made you decide to work with non-professional actors, blending in with professional actors such as Berlinale Silver Bear winner Reza Naji who basically plays himself in the film?

Nazer: Reza used to be a non-actor himself. He never studied the business, or played in the theater, at the time he entered the movies, which is also part of the story. I wanted to have this combination to bring authenticity to the film. This was really important for me. I wanted to show that cinema is real life and having a combination of actors and non-actors, allows us to feel we are in real life.

This is quite an ode to Jafar Panahi, with a few mentions and even a "cameo" appearance by someone who may or may not be him. How would you feel if you were prevented to make movies yourself, as he has been basically in Iran.

Nazer: If I want to combine everything, it comes down to freedom of speech. It is the human right of every human being. We feel very very sorry for Mr. Panahi and for the others, as he's not alone -- and it could be anybody in Iran or around the world. The freedom of speech issue seems to be a global problem, not only in Iran. We see it highlighted in Iran as these are very iconic directors. We are simply very angry and upset this situation is happening. My job as a filmmaker is to pay tribute to their life and celebrate their work and this is my language, to support them in the hope of a peaceful solution -- for Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and others.

I think we are moving towards that. This will be resolved, but unfortunately the world seems to be going in the wrong direction. Which is not helping Panahi and Rasoulof.

You are also based in Scotland, so does that give you a different perspective, seeing it as someone who is able to view both sides?

Nazer: I've spent half of my life in Scotland and half in Iran and again, I take advantage of this situation as I experienced two different culture -- the European and the Middle Eastern. Even in my film there is a European vision, it's a little different from the Iranian films you may be used to watching. I do have a European side, in terms of showing the landscape, etc. One doesn't want to say that the media is controlled but this is a worldwide problem, it's a reality. The Western media is not in the hands of the Middle East so anything that happens there is more highlighted here. And from living here, in Scotland, I see a lot of things which are told differently if you compare them with what is happening in Iran.

In order to make a film in Iran I needed permission, as I'm sure you know. There is censorship in place. So bringing Jafar Panahi's character into the film, as I do, is an issue. I needed to be very creative to be a voice for him. And very careful as that could have gone very wrong, ruined my career as well as endangered my family.

You have UK backing on the film, are the official submission to the Academy Awards, yet filmed in Iran. How complicated was it to juggle those two things?

Nazer: A filmmaker is always creative, and very careful especially in a location like Iran. There are a lot of rules in place and having a crew from a foreign country, the UK, we needed to be careful as to what we filmed because we could be watched. Children at work, having a story of professional actors that did not succeed in Iran -- these were all red flags. I had to explain a lot of my script when I wanted to obtain the certificate to film. I had to submit it to the committee and they came up with some questions, as well as asked what the film's final outcome would be. I was nervous, and didn't want to hide anything, because in order to then get the film out of Iran, I needed the completion certificate as well. Which means everything from application to completion has to match.

I sat with the committee for the completion certificate and was waiting for the scene with Jafar Panahi to come on. As soon as that scene started, the committee were all looking at each other. Fortunately, nothing big happened, and I think it helped that I never mentioned his full name, and call his "character" Jafar instead. Which of course the audience will get, this is who I meant. Ultimately, it was about supporting both sides of the conversation, which I think helped me to get this film made.

What do you wish your audience to take away from the film?

Nazer: This is a very important question. Iranian films are typically very sad films, deep into poverty and disasters happening within the family. I didn't want to lose the feel of that in my story but in a way the film is also very funny to watch. I wanted to combine these two elements together. The audience should be able to digest the story very easily. The idea of watching a fun movie, with a sad story within it, which is universal.

And the other thing would be the love of cinema. This love of cinema featured in the film doesn't only belong to Iran, but everywhere. We feature Cinema Paradiso and other iconic films in the world and the main thing for me is celebrating all these people who have achieved something, in the film -- starting with Jafar Panahi of course. And everybody should be "Winners" -- the audience, the actors, everybody. I wanted the audience to walk out feeling they are the winners.

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