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Did Oscar Winner Asghar Farhadi Steal the Idea for ‘A Hero’?

A former student sues the Iranian auteur for pilfering her premise for his recent short-listed drama — an allegation he rejects — and risks 74 lashes if she loses the case.

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 Grand Prize at 2021’s Cannes Film Festival, was picked up by Amazon for U.S. release in January. A favorite for the 2022 Oscar race — Farhadi has won two Oscars, for A Separation in 2012 and The Salesman in 2018, and is considered one of the top prestige filmmakers in global cinema — A Hero made the Academy Award shortlist for best international feature but wasn’t among the final five Oscar nominees.

The plot of A Hero follows Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a divorced father on a two-day leave from debtors’ prison who stumbles across a purse containing gold coins. Rahim initially plans to pawn the gold to help pay off his debt, but when the coins prove to be worth less than he thought, he comes up with a more complicated, and muddled, scheme: He turns in the money, hoping to refurbish his image from ex-con to selfless do-gooder. As any fan of Farhadi’s wry, socially critical dramas can guess, things don’t go according to plan.

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Now, in a plot twist that could have come from one of Farhadi’s movies, the director is facing a pair of lawsuits in Iran connected to the film. One of the director’s former film students claims Farhadi plagiarized the story for A Hero from a documentary (titled All Winners, All Losers) she made in his class, and the man both she and Farhadi claim the story of A Hero is based on also is suing the Oscar winner, accusing Farhadi of defaming his character in his fictional portrayal.

Farhadi denies all the allegations and has filed a countersuit against the former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh, accusing her of defamation. All three criminal cases are proceeding simultaneously. The court has yet to rule.

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

The Hollywood Reporter has spoken to Masihzadeh, her lawyer (who is providing advice but not representing her in court) and several other people connected to the case and submitted questions to Farhadi through Sophie Borowsky, a 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 is clear: Farhadi taught a workshop on documentary filmmaking in 2014 at Tehran’s Karnameh Institute, a local film school, where Masihzadeh attended the class. For their coursework, the students were to research and shoot a short documentary based on the idea of “returning lost things,” using real-life cases of people who had returned money they had found to its rightful owners. Most of the cases were taken from news stories reported on Iranian television and in national newspapers. Masihzadeh, however, found an original story of one Mr. Shokri, an inmate in debtors’ prison in her home city of Shiraz in the southwest of the country. As depicted 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 on Shokri’s story to Farhadi and the rest of the film class in which she outlined the prisoner’s story to Farhadi. THR has viewed and had translated a video of the class and spoken to several people who were present that day.

“I remember that moment very well because we were all shocked — Mr. Farhadi was shocked as well — because Azadeh’s story was so interesting and she’d come up with it all herself,” Rola Shamas, one of Masihzadeh’s fellow students, tells THR.

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Azadeh Masihzadeh (right) shooting her documentary All Winners, All Losers. Courtesy of Azadeh Masihzadeh

It’s Masihzadeh’s claim that the Oscar-winning director used this story as the basis for A Hero without acknowledging the original source or giving her proper credit. In 2019, before production had begun on A Hero, Masihzadeh says 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 sign over all rights to the story to him. She did.

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

Farhardi’s lawyer Borowsky notes that the document, which was submitted as evidence in the ongoing court case, is legally meaningless — “ideas and concepts are not protected by copyright,” she points out, correctly. But in an email response to questions from THR, she was somewhat vague about why the director would want a signed document of no legal value.

“Asghar Farhadi apparently wanted to make clear that he was the one who proposed the idea and the 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 — which is creating heroes in society — based on two lines of [the] Bertolt Brecht play [Life of] Galileo,” says 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 fiction film based on a free interpretation of Mr. Shokri’s story, which was published in media before the start of the above-mentioned workshop.”

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

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

But Masihzadeh disputes this. The only reporting on Shokri’s story, she claims, was in a local Shiraz newspaper.

“[Shokri’s] story was never in the national media, it was never on national TV, it was not available online or in the public record,” 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 herself,” not Farhadi, she says. That corresponds with classmate Shamas’ recollection.

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

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

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

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

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

This he said/she said 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 cinema. His international success has won him broad support and even inspired patriotic fervor among some nationalistic segments 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, at the very least, of letting 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 tightrope walker, trying to work within the system to keep getting his movies made.”

Whatever the legal outcome of the A Hero cases (a decision could come “tomorrow, it could be next year,” notes Masihzadeh’s lawyer), the damage to Farhadi’s reputation already may have been done. As the headline of one 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.