Questions of ethics and motives, the gap between public and private morality, run through A hero, the latest drama from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. The feature film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, has been selected by Amazon for US release in January. A favorite for the 2022 Oscar race – Farhadi has won two Oscars, for A seperation 2012 and The seller in 2018 and is considered one of the most renowned filmmakers in global cinema – A hero was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film but was not among the last five Academy Award nominees.
The plot of A hero follows Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a divorced father on a two-day vacation from debtors’ prison who stumbles across a purse full of gold coins. Rahim initially plans to pawn the gold to pay off his debts, but when the coins turn out to be worth less than he thought, he comes up with a more complicated and convoluted plan: he hands over the money in hopes renovate his image from ex-con to selfless do-gooder. As any fan of Farhadi’s tongue-in-cheek, socio-critical dramas can guess, things don’t go according to plan.
Now, in a storyline that could have been taken from one of Farhadi’s films, the director faces two court cases in Iran linked to the film. One of the director’s former film students claims Farhadi plagiarized the story A hero from a documentary (entitled All winners, all losers) that she made in his class and the man both she and Farhadi claim the story of A hero is also based on suing the Oscar winner who accuses Farhadi of defaming his character in his fictional portrayal.
Farhadi denies all allegations and has filed a counterclaim against former student Azadeh Masihzadeh for defamation. All three criminal proceedings are running simultaneously. The court has yet to decide.
The fall’s consequences for both Farhadi and Masihzadeh are potentially grave. If the court found Farhadi guilty of plagiarism All winners, all losers to the A hero, they could be forced to hand Masihzadeh “all proceeds from showing the film in theaters or online,” according to her lawyer, and could even face jail time. On the other hand, if Masihzadeh is found guilty of falsely accusing and slandering Farhadi, she faces up to two years in prison and 74 lashes (corporal punishment is still part of Iran’s penal system).
The Hollywood Reporter has spoken to Masihzadeh, her attorney (who advises her but does not represent her in court) and several others associated with the case, and asked Farhadi questions about Sophie Borowsky, an attorney for Memento Production and Memento Distribution, the respective co-producers and French distributor of A hero.
All parties agree on the broad outlines of the story, but differ on the key facts. One thing is certain: in 2014, Farhadi taught a workshop on documentary film at the Karnameh Institute in Tehran, a local film school where Masihzadeh attended the course. For their thesis, students should research and shoot a short documentary based on the idea of ”returning lost things” using real cases of people returning found money to its rightful owners. Most of the cases were taken from news reports reported on Iranian television and national newspapers. However, Masihzadeh found an original story of a Mr. Shokri, an inmate in the debtor’s prison in her hometown of Shiraz in the southwest of the country. As depicted in Masihzadeh’s documentary screened at Shiraz Arts Festival in 2018, Shokri found a bag of gold during his prison leave and decided to return the money.
Masihzadeh pitched her idea for a documentary about Shokri’s story to Farhadi and the rest of the film class, in which she outlined the prisoner’s story to Farhadi. THR watched and translated a video of the class and spoke to several people who were present that day.
“I remember that moment very well because we were all shocked – Mr. Farhadi was shocked too – because Azadeh’s story was so interesting and she made it all up herself,” says Rola Shamas, a fellow student of Masihzadeh THR.
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 due credit. 2019 before production started A heroMasihzadeh says Farhadi called her to his office and asked her to sign a document stating that the original idea for All winners, all losers belonged to him and to give him all rights to the story. She did.
“I shouldn’t have signed it, but I put a lot of pressure on it,” says Masihzadeh, speaking via video link from Tehran, adding that she was not offered any payment to sign. “Mr. Farhadi is this great master of Iranian cinema. He used this power he had over me to get me to sign.”
Farhardi’s attorney Borowsky maintains that the document presented as evidence in the ongoing court case is legally meaningless – “Ideas and concepts are not protected by copyright,” she rightly states. But in an email reply to questions from THRshe was a bit vague as to why the director wanted a signed document with no legal value.
“Asghar Farhadi apparently wanted to clarify that he was the one who suggested the idea and plot of the documentary during the workshop,” Borowsky wrote.
For his part, Farhadi has 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 – the creation of heroes in society – based on two lines from [the] play Bertolt Brecht [Life of] Galileo“, says Borowsky (Galileo chronicles the Italian astronomer’s conflict with the Catholic Church over his belief in science). When Farhadi revisited the idea in 2019, Borowsky claimed, he decided to “write and direct a feature film based on a free interpretation of Mr. Shokri’s story that was released to the media prior to the start of the aforementioned workshop.”
Borowsky adds that Farhadi has independently researched Shokri’s story but has not contacted Shokri because “the film’s main character, Rahim, not only has no character traits with Mr. Shokri, but in some ways he’s the complete opposite. Contacting Mr. Shokri for research.”
The director’s research, she says, was carried out with “newspapers and other media”. She provided links to two Iranian news items, apparently posted online in 2012, which appear to describe Shokri’s story.
But Masihzadeh denies this. The only coverage of Shokri’s story, she claims, was in a local Shiraz newspaper.
“[Shokri’s] The story has never been in the national media, it has never been on TV, it has not been available online or in the public records,” says Masihzadeh. “It was a story that I found and researched myself.”
Negar Eskandarfar, the director of the Karnameh Institute, who attended the documentary workshop sessions, supports Masihzadeh’s version of events. “The theme of All winners, all losers was provided by Azadeh himself,” she says, not Farhadi. This agrees with classmate Shamas’ recollection.
“I always follow what’s happening in Cannes, so I listened when Mr. Farhadi was doing an interview [in 2021] About A hero‘ Shamas recalled. “When he gave a summary [of the film], I swear I’m frozen. I thought, ‘This is Azadeh’s documentary.’”
Shamas was tried in court on behalf of Masihzadeh in this regard. However, several other students who attended the same documentary workshop signed a statement supporting Farhadi’s claims.
After Masihzadeh went public with her allegations, Eskandarfar said she was approached by another former alum, who made similar claims regarding plagiarism of a project they completed at a workshop led by Farhadi in 2011. THR was able to speak 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 said he would not be making any legal claims against him.
“Mr. Farhadi is a brilliant filmmaker and what he made of my story is his work, not mine,” he says THR.
This dispute, he/she said, is complicated by Farhadi’s position in Iran. The two-time Oscar winner is both the most famous and most controversial figure in Iranian cinema today. His international success has garnered him widespread support and even sparked patriotic fervor in 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 silencing the country’s autocratic rulers support, or at least let them use the success of his films to promote the regime internationally.
“Some consider him a hero, others a traitor,” says Farhad Payar, a German-Iranian actor and producer. “But he’s a tightrope walker trying to work within the system to keep his films going.”
Regardless of the legal outcome of the A hero Cases (a decision could be “tomorrow, it could be next year,” notes Masihzadeh’s lawyer), Farhadi’s reputation may already have been damaged. 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 login.