Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, known for creating substantial waves in the film industry, is now facing legal threats for his internationally acclaimed film, A Hero. The feature film, which won the Jury Grand Prize at 2021’s Cannes Film Festival is now sued for being a rip off by a former film student of Farhadi.
The Oscar winner was in the 2022 race for the Academy Awards as well for A Hero and even made the shortlist for the best international feature but didn’t end up making the final five.
A Hero explores the social conundrums of private and public morality and questions ethics and intentions. It 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. However, the drama brings the audience a series of conflicting revelations and things do not work the way Rahim intends them to.
Ironically, it seems like Farhadi is now facing a conflict much likely to come from his sardonic, socially critical films only. The director is facing a pair of lawsuits in Iran connected to the film. A former film student of Farhadi, Azadeh Masihzadeh, has sued him for plagiarising the story of A Hero from a documentary (titled, All Winners, All Losers) that she made in his class. Other than that, the man upon whom the duo claims their stories are based is also accusing the Oscar winner of defamation of his character in his fictional portrayal.
Farhadi has denied all such allegations against him and has filed a countersuit against the former student accusing her of defamation. All three criminal cases are proceeding simultaneously and the court has yet to rule.
The Iranian penal system brings forth severe consequences for both parties, Farhadi and Masihzadeh. According to Masihzadeh, if the court rules the decision in her favour and finds Farhadi guilty of plagiarising All Winners, All Losers for A Hero, he could be forced to hand over “all income earned by the screening of the film in theatres or online” to Masihzadeh and could even face time in prison. However, if the court finds Masihzadeh’s claim a false accusation and an attempt to defame her former teacher, she will be announced to a prison sentence of up to two years and 7 lashes, a corporal punishment.
After contacting all parties connected to the lawsuits, The Hollywood Reporter reported that in 2014, Farhadi taught a documentary filmmaking workshop at Tehran’s Karnameh Institute, a local film school, where Masihzadeh attended the class. The theme for their assigned coursework, a short, well-researched documentary, was the idea of “returning lost things,” using real-life cases of people who had returned the money they had found to its rightful owners.
Where most students based their plots on found cases from news stories reported on Iranian television and in national newspapers, Masihzadeh went out of her way and found an original story of Mr Shokri, an inmate in debtors’ prison in her hometown of Shiraz in the southwest of the country. Masihzadeh’s documentary, All Winners, All Losers, depicts Shokri finding a bag of gold while on leave from prison and deciding to return the money; an uncanny similarity to A Hero’s main plot.
In conversation with a fellow student, Rola Shamas, from the above-mentioned class, they mentioned how Farhadi was “shocked” at Azadeh’s original idea. “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,” she told THR.
Shamas said they “froze” when they heard an interview of Farhadi for Cannes where he gave a synopsis of the film. “When he gave a synopsis [of the film], I swear I froze. I thought, ‘That’s Azadeh’s documentary.” However, apart from Shamas, all other fellow students from the documentary workshop have signed a statement supporting Farhadi’s claims.
Negar Eskandarfar, the director of the Karnameh Institute, also supports Masihzadeh’s version of events. “The subject of All Winners, All Losers was provided by Azadeh herself,” he said.
Masihzadeh revealed that in 2019, before production began for A Hero, Farhadi contacted her to sign all rights of All Winners, All Losers to him and claim that the idea was his, to begin with, and she did. While she regrets signing the papers, she claims she felt pressured and wasn’t offered any payment for signing the rights. Talking about the power-play in place, she said, “I shouldn’t have signed it, but I felt under great pressure to do so. Mr Farhadi is a great master of Iranian cinema. He used that power he had over me to get me to sign.”
However, Farhadi’s lawyer Borowsky exclaimed that the document wavering copyrights is “legally meaningless” and that “ideas and concepts are not protected by copyright,” but that brings the question of why the director would make a student sign a legally meaningless document that raises a potential copyright clause.
“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 in an email to THR. “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 also shared that Farhadi never contacted Shokri independently and conducted his research independently from “newspapers and media outlets.” But Masihzadeh stated that the only reporting on Shokri’s story 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, “she said. “It was a story I found and researched on my own.”
The Oscar winner is of the view that his position as an internationally acclaimed film director has made his standing divisive and controversial in Iran and hence, Masihzadeh is involved in defaming him to rob him off his success.
Farhadi has won two Oscars, for A Separation (2012) and The Salesman (2018), and is considered a bigwig in global cinema.