Questions of ethics and motive, the gap between public and private morality, run through A hero, the latest drama from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. The feature, which won the Jury’s Grand Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, was picked up by Amazon for US release in January. A favorite for the Oscar race in 2022 – Farhadi has won two Oscars, too A Separation in 2012 and The seller in 2018 and is considered one of the best prestige filmmakers in global cinema – A hero came on the Oscar shortlist for best international film, but was not among the last five Oscar nominees.
Plotted by A hero follows Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a divorced father on two days’ leave from debtor prison, who falls over a purse with gold coins. Rahim initially plans to pledge the gold to help pay off his debt, but as the coins turn out to be worth less than he thought, he comes up with a more complicated and confused plan: He hands over the money in hopes of renovating his image from former deceiver to selfless benefactor. As any fan of Farhadi’s quirky, socially critical dramas can guess, things are not going according to plan.
Now, in a plot twist that could have come from one of Farhadi’s films, the director is facing a couple of lawsuits in Iran related to the film. One of the director’s former film students claims that Farhadi plagiarized the story A hero from a documentary (with the title All winners, all losers) she made in his class, and the man both she and Farhadi claim the story of ONE Quite is based on also suing the Oscar winner and accusing Farhadi of slandering his character in his fictional portrayal.
Farhadi denies all charges and has filed a lawsuit against the former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh, accusing her of defamation. All three criminal cases are running simultaneously. The court has not yet ruled.
The consequences of the case, both for Farhadi and Masihzadeh, are potentially serious. If the court finds Farhadi guilty of plagiarism All winners, all losers to A hero, he could, according to her lawyer, be forced to hand over “all income earned by showing the film in cinemas or online” to Masihzadeh and may even risk time in jail. On the other hand, if Masihzadeh is found guilty of falsely accusing Farhadi and slandering him, she risks a prison sentence of up to two years as well as 74 lashes (corporal punishment is still part of the Iranian penal system).
The Hollywood Reporter has spoken to Masihzadeh, her lawyer (who provides advice but does not represent her in court) and several other people involved in the case and asked Farhadi questions through Sophie Borowsky, lawyer for Memento Production and Memento Distribution, the respective co-producer and French distributor of A hero.
All parties agree on the broad outlines of the story, but diverge on key facts. What’s clear: Farhadi taught a 2014 documentary filmmaking workshop at Tehran’s Karnameh Institute, a local film school where Masihzadeh attended the class. For their courses, students were to research and record a short documentary based on the idea of ”returning lost property” using real-life cases about people who had returned money they had found to its rightful owners. Most of the cases were taken from news reported on Iranian television and in national newspapers. However, Masihzadeh found an original story about a Mr. Shokri, a detainee in her hometown of Shiraz in the southwestern part of the country. As depicted in Masihzadeh’s documentary, which was shown at the Shiraz Arts Festival in 2018, Shokri found a bag of gold during leave from prison and decided to return the money.
Masihzadeh presented her idea for a documentary about Shokri’s story for Farhadi and the rest of the film class, in which she outlined the prisoner’s story for Farhadi. THR have seen and translated a video of the class and talked to several people who were present that day.
“I remember that moment very well because we were all shocked – Mr Farhadi was also shocked – because Azadeh’s story was so interesting and she had come up with it all herself,” says Rola Shamas, one of Masihzadeh’s fellow students. THR.
It is Masihzadeh’s claim that the Oscar-winning director used this story as a basis for A hero without acknowledging the original source or giving her proper credit. In 2019, before production had begun A herosays Masihzadeh that Farhadi called her into his office and asked her to sign a document stating that the original idea for All winners, all losers was his and to overwrite all rights to the story to him. She did.
“I should not have signed it, but I felt under great pressure to do so,” said Masihzadeh, speaking via video link from Tehran, adding that she was not offered payment for signing. “Mr Farhadi is this great master of Iranian film. He used the power he had over me to get me to sign.”
Farhardi’s lawyer Borowsky notes that the document presented as evidence in the ongoing trial is legally meaningless – “ideas and concepts are not protected by copyright,” she rightly points out. But in an email answer to questions from THRshe was somewhat vague as to why the director wanted a signed document with no legal value.
“Asghar Farhadi apparently wanted to make it clear that it was he who proposed the idea and plot of the documentary during the workshop,” Borowsky wrote.
For his part, Farhadi has argued (in interviews for A hero and through his lawyers) that the main idea for his film came much earlier.
“Mr Farhadi found inspiration for the main theme of the story – which is to create heroes in society – based on two lines of [the] Bertolt Brecht plays [Life of] Galileo“says Borowsky (Galileo chronicles the clash of the Italian astronomer with the Catholic Church over his belief in science). When Farhadi revisited the idea in 2019, Borowsky claims, he decided to “write and direct a fiction film based on a free interpretation of Mr. Shokri’s story, which was published in the media before the start of the above workshop.”
Borowsky adds that Farhadi investigated Shokri’s story independently but did not contact Shokri, as “the film’s main character, Rahim, not only does not share any character traits with Mr. Shokri, but also in some aspects he is the opposite. Therefore, there was no reason to contact Mr. Shokri for research. ”
The director’s research, she says, was conducted using “newspapers and other media.” She provided links to two Iranian news stories, which were apparently posted online in 2012, which appear to detail Shokri’s story.
But Masihzadeh denies this. The only report on Shokri’s story, she claims, was in a local Shiraz newspaper.
“[Shokri’s] the story was never in the national media, it was never on TV, it was not available online or in public, ”says Masihzadeh. “It was a story I found and researched on my own.”
Negar Eskandarfar, the director of the Karnameh Institute, who was present at the documentary workshop sessions, backs Masihzadeh’s version of events. “The subject of All winners, all losers was provided by Azadeh himself, ”not Farhadi, she says. This is similar to the memory of classmate Shamas.
“I always follow what is happening in Cannes, so I listened when Mr Farhadi did an interview. [in 2021] about A hero“, remembers Shamas.” When he gave a synopsis [of the film], I swear, I froze. I thought, “This is Azadeh’s documentary.”
Shamas has testified in court on behalf of Masihzadeh. However, several other students who attended the same documentary workshop have signed a statement supporting Farhadi’s claims.
After Masihzadeh published her accusations, Eskandarfar says she was contacted by another former alum who made similar allegations regarding plagiarism of a project he carried out at a workshop run by Farhadi in 2011. THR be able to talk to the student in question, who requested anonymity. While confirming that he believed Farhadi used his student project as the basis for one of his films, he says he will not pursue any legal claims against him.
“Mr Farhadi is an ingenious filmmaker, and what he did with my story is his work, not mine,” he says. THR.
This he / she said the dispute is complicated by Farhadi’s position in Iran. The two-time Oscar winner is both the most famous and most divisive figure in Iranian film. His international success has won him wide support and even inspired patriotic fervor among some nationalist parts of the country, but the fact that Farhadi does not openly criticize Iran’s Islamic government has led some to accuse him of tacitly supporting the country’s autocratic rulers or in at least to let them use the success of his films to promote the regime internationally.
“One side considers him a hero, the other a traitor,” says Farhad Payar, a German-Iranian actor and producer. “But he’s a tensioner who’s trying to work in the system to keep getting his films made.”
Regardless of the legal outcome of A hero cases (a decision may come “tomorrow, it may be next year,” Masihzadeh’s lawyer notes), the damage to Farhadi’s reputation may have already happened. As the headline on an Iranian news site said, “Asghar Farhadi: Yesterday’s Hero, Today’s Thief!”
This story first appeared in the Hollywood Reporter magazine on March 23rd. Click here to subscribe.