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Winners, directed by Scotland-based Iranian filmmaker Hassan Nazer, opens with a dedication to Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Maijdi and Jafar Panahi, which is hardly likely to endear it to the Iranian authorities. But from that point on, Nazer’s film makes no explicit criticism of the country’s repressive regime. Rather, it fits into the Iranian tradition of sympathetic movies about kids, several of them directed by Nazer’s dedicatees, including Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), and two films by Majidi: The Colour of Paradise (1999) and – a key reference in this film – The Song of Sparrows (2008).
The central strand in Winners’s occasionally far-fetched story concerns an Oscar statuette, apparently awarded to an Iranian movie, that gets accidentally left in a taxi in Tehran and winds up in the hands of two nine-year-olds, Yahya (Parsa Maghami) and Leyla (Helia Mohammadkhani), who support their respective families by collecting plastic refuse from a huge tip near their remote village – as do all the local kids, it seems. They deliver their collections to two men, Naser (Reza Naji) and Saber (Hossein Abedini). Saber, the younger of the two, keeps Yahya supplied with DVD s that he watches obsessively – Cinema Paradiso (1988) gets frequent namechecks.
Winners is essentially a love letter to Iranian cinema, although one with an ambiguous edge of scepticism. The country’s screen output, it’s suggested, though feted and even sometimes internationally awarded, doesn’t always receive the lasting credit it deserves – and the same goes for the players who appear in it. Naser and Saber (Naji and Abedini essentially playing themselves) have enjoyed success and renown – Naser even carries in his beaten-up truck a Silver Bear, the award Naji won in Berlin for his performance in The Song of Sparrows – but, disillusioned, have retreated to this remote dustbowl of a village under pseudonyms to trade in plastic refuse. “Everybody expected too much of me. I had to disappear,” grumbles Naser.
Nonetheless, the film ends on a note of optimism. Naser and Saber return to the city, where they’re at once mobbed on the street by their fans. And as the action circles back to its beginning, Yahya, having learnt what the Oscar symbolises, sits in a Tehran taxi – driven, we’re led to believe, by no less than Jafar Panahi – to bring the statuette back to its rightful owner. Winners may require a degree of familiarity with Iranian cinema to be fully appreciated, but it rewards the attention.
► Winners is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.