Did Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi steal the idea for ‘A Hero’?

Questions of ethics and motivation, the gap between public and private morality, run through A herothe latest drama of the famous iranian filmmaker Asgar Farhadi. The feature, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, has been picked up by Amazon for release in the United States in January. A favorite for the 2022 Oscar race – Farhadi won two Oscarsfor A separation in 2012 and Seller in 2018, and is considered one of the most prestigious filmmakers in world cinema — A hero do it Oscar Shortlist for the best international feature film but was not one of the last five Oscar nominees.

The plot of A hero follows Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a divorced father on two days’ leave from debtors’ prison who comes across a wallet containing gold coins. Rahim initially plans to pawn the gold to help pay off his debt, but when the coins are worth less than he thought, he comes up with a more complicated and confusing plan: he returns the money, in the hope to refurbish his image from ex-con to altruistic benefactor. As any fan of Farhadi’s tongue-in-cheek and socially critical dramas can guess, things don’t go as planned.

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Now, in a plotline that could have come from one of Farhadi’s films, the director faces a pair of lawsuits in Iran related to the film. One of the director’s former film students claims Farhadi plagiarized the story to A hero of a documentary (entitled All winners, all losers) that she did in her class, and the man she and Farhadi claim the story of A hero is based on is also suing the Oscar-winning actor, accusing Farhadi of defaming his character in his fictional portrayal.

Farhadi denies all the allegations and has filed a counter-suit against former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh, accusing her of defamation. The three criminal cases are proceeding simultaneously. The court has not yet ruled.

The consequences of the case, for both Farhadi and Masihzadeh, are potentially serious. If the court finds Farhadi guilty of plagiarism All winners, all losers for A hero, he could be forced to hand over “all income generated by the screening of the film in theaters or online” to Masihzadeh, according to his lawyer, and could even face a prison sentence. On the other hand, if Masihzadeh is found guilty of falsely accusing Farhadi and defaming him, she faces a prison sentence of up to two years as well as 74 lashes (corporal punishment is still part of the penal system). Iranian).

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Masihzadeh, her lawyer (who advises her but does not represent her in court) and several other people connected to the case and submitted questions to Farhadi 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 main lines of the story but differ on the essential facts. What is clear: Farhadi taught a workshop on documentary filmmaking in 2014 at the Karnameh Institute in Tehran, a local film school, where Masihzadeh attended the class. For their lessons, the students had to research and shoot a short documentary based on the idea of ​​”giving things back”, using real cases of people who had returned the money they found to its rightful owners. Most of the cases were drawn from reports reported on Iranian television and national newspapers. Masihzadeh, however, found an original story of a certain Mr. Shokri, held in the debtor’s prison in his hometown of Shiraz, in the southwest of the country. As seen in Masihzadeh’s documentary, which screened at the Shiraz Arts Festival in 2018, Shokri found a bag of gold while on leave from prison and decided to return the money.

Masihzadeh presented her idea for a documentary about Shokri’s story to Farhadi and the rest of the filmmaking class in which she portrayed the prisoner’s story to Farhadi. THR viewed and translated a video of the class and spoke to several people present that day.

“I remember this moment very well because we were all shocked – Mr. Farhadi was also shocked – because Azadeh’s story was so interesting and she had invented it on her own,” says Rola Shamas, one of Masihzadeh’s classmates. THR.

Azadeh Masihzadeh (right) is filming his documentary All Winners, All Losers.  - Credit: Courtesy of Azadeh Masihzadeh

Azadeh Masihzadeh (right) is filming his documentary All Winners, All Losers. – Credit: Courtesy of Azadeh Masihzadeh

Courtesy of Azadeh Masihzadeh

It is Masihzadeh’s claim that the Oscar-winning director used this story as the basis for A hero without acknowledging the original source or giving it proper credit. In 2019, before the start of production on A heroMasihzadeh says Farhadi called her into his office and asked her to sign a document stating that the brainchild of All winners, all losers was his and to cede all rights to the story to him. She did it.

“I shouldn’t have signed it, but I felt a lot of pressure to do so,” Masihzadeh said, speaking via video link from Tehran, and adding that she had not received payment for the signature. “Mr. Farhadi is this great master of Iranian cinema. He used this power he had over me to get me signed.

Farhardi’s lawyer, Borowsky, notes that the document, which was submitted as evidence in the current case, makes no legal sense – “ideas and concepts are not copyrighted” , she rightly points out. But in an email response to questions from THRshe was somewhat vague on why the director would want a signed document without legal value.

“Asghar Farhadi apparently wanted to clarify that he was the one who came up with the idea and plot for the documentary during the workshop,” Borowsky wrote.

For his part, Farhadi claimed (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 creates heroes in society – based on two lines of [the] Bertolt Brecht play [Life of] Galileosays Borowsky (Galileo chronicles the Italian astronomer’s clash 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 fictional film based on a free interpretation of Mr. Shokri’s story, which was published in the media before the beginning of the aforementioned workshop”.

Borowsky adds that Farhadi independently researched Shokri’s story but did not contact Shokri because “the main character of the film, Rahim, not only does not share any character traits with Mr. Shokri, but also, to some respects it is the polar opposite, therefore there was no need to contact Mr. Shokri for research.

The director’s research, she said, was done using “newspapers and other media.” She provided links to two Iranian news reports, apparently published online in 2012, which appear to detail Shokri’s story.

But Masihzadeh disputes that. The only news story about Shokri’s story, she claims, was in a local newspaper in Shiraz.

“[Shokri’s] the story was never in the national media, it was never aired on TV, it was not available online or in public records,” says Masihzadeh. “It’s a story that I found and researched on my own.”

Negar Eskandarfar, the director of the Karnameh Institute who was present at the documentary workshop sessions, supports Masihzadeh’s version of events. “The subject of All winners, all losers was provided by Azadeh herself,” not Farhadi, she says. This matches the memory of classmate Shamas.

“I always follow what’s happening in Cannes, so I was listening when Mr. Farhadi did an interview [in 2021] on A hero“recalls Shamas. “When he gave a synopsis [of the film], I swear I froze. I thought, ‘This is the Azadeh documentary.’ »

Shamas testified in court to this effect on behalf of Masihzadeh. Several other students who attended the same documentary workshop, however, signed a statement supporting Farhadi’s claims.

Farhadi’s A Hero, with Amir Jadidi (far right).  - Credit: Courtesy of Amirhossein Shojaei/Amazon Studios

A Hero by Farhadi, with Amir Jadidi (extreme right). – Credit: Courtesy of Amirhossein Shojaei/Amazon Studios

Courtesy of Amirhossein Shojaei/Amazon Studios

After Masihzadeh went public with her accusations, Eskandarfar says she was approached by another alumnus who made similar claims regarding plagiarism of a project he made at a workshop led by Farhadi in 2011. . THR was able to speak to the student in question, who requested anonymity. Although he confirmed that he believed Farhadi used his student project as the basis for one of his films, he says he will not pursue any legal action against him.

“Mr. Farhadi is a genius filmmaker and what he did with my story is his job, not mine,” he says. THR.

What he/she said the dispute is complicated by Farhadi’s position in Iran. The double Oscar winner is both the most famous and controversial figure in Iranian cinema. His international success has won him wide support and even inspired patriotic fervor among some nationalist segments of the country, but Farhadi’s failure to openly criticize Iran’s Islamic government has led some to accuse him of tacitly supporting Iran’s autocratic rulers. countries or, at the very least, to let them use the success of his films to promote the regime internationally.

“One side views him as a hero, the other as a traitor,” says German-Iranian actor and producer Farhad Payar. “But he’s a tightrope walker, trying to work within the system to keep his movies running.”

Whatever the legal outcome of the A hero case (a decision could come “tomorrow, it could be next year”, notes Masihzadeh’s lawyer), the damage to Farhadi’s reputation may have already been done. As the headline of an Iranian news site put it: “Asghar Farhadi: Yesterday’s Hero, Today’s Thief!”

This story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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