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Former Student Suing Asghar Farhadi Over Alleged ‘A Hero’ Plagiarism, Both Risk Jail Time

Farhadi has denied all accusations and filed a countersuit, but his former student says the idea for "A Hero" came from a documentary she made as part of his class.

Asghar Farhadi, winner of the grand prix award for the film 'A Hero' poses for photographers during a photo call following the awards ceremony at the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, July 17, 2021. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Asghar Farhadi

Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

Asghar Farhadi, the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker known as one of the leading voices of Iranian cinema, is now in the middle of a legal battle over allegedly plagiarizing the idea for his film “A Hero.”

“A Hero,” which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and was shortlisted for the 2022 International Feature Oscar, follows divorced father Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who is on leave from debtor’s prison. When he stumbles upon a bag of money that turns out to be worth less than he thought, he decides to return the money in hopes of rehabbing his public image as an ex-convict.

But according to The Hollywood Reporter, one of Farhadi’s former students, Azadeh Masihzadeh, is now suing Farhadi on the premise that he stole the concept from a documentary titled “All Winners, All Losers” that she made in his film class. Also suing the Academy Award–winning director of “The Salesman” and “A Separation” is the man that both Masihzadeh and Farhadi claim is the basis for Rahim’s character.

Farhadi has denied all allegations and, in turn, filed a countersuit alleging defamation, with all three cases proceeding in tandem. Any outcome is potentially severe, because if the court finds Farhadi guilty of plagiarism, he will have to forfeit all income earned by the film in theaters or online (it was released stateside by Amazon Studios) to Masihzadeh. Prison time is also a possibility, according to her attorney. However, if she is found guilty of falsely accusing him, and of defamation, she faces a possible two-year prison sentence.

There’s also the question of whether Masihzadeh would face 74 lashes, as suggested by THR, as Iran’s penal system employs corporal punishment — a decision ultimately left in the hands of the judge. But this is rare in a situation where an accuser has no prior record, as sources suggest. A possible prison sentence could also be converted into simply paying fines.

Sources tell IndieWire that Masihzadeh’s complaint was reviewed by Kaneh Cinema and the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds in October 2021 and that the organizations ruled in Farhadi’s favor.

According to the report, Masihzadeh pitched the idea for “All Winners” during a documentary filmmaking class at Karnameh Institute in Tehran back in 2014. Masihzadeh proposed the story of a Mr. Shokri, an inmate in debtor’s prison who, similar to “A Hero,” found a bag of gold during a prison leave and decided to return it. “All Winners, All Losers” screened at the Shiraz Arts Festival in 2018.

“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, told THR.

Masihzadeh said that, in 2019, Farhadi summoned her to his office and asked her to sign a document saying that the idea for “All Winners, All Losers” was Farhadi’s.

“I shouldn’t have signed it, but I felt under great pressure to do so,” said Masihzadeh, who was allegedly not offered any payment from Farhadi. “Mr. Farhadi is this great master of Iranian cinema. He used that power he had over me to get me to sign.”

Farhadi’s attorney Sophie Borowsky noted that “ideas and concepts are not protected by copyright,” which also means that the document signed by Masihzadeh has 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 to THR.

Borowsky added that inspiration for the film came from a Bertolt Brecht play but that the movie is also a free interpretation of Shokri’s story, which Farhadi and his representatives claim was prominent in media well before the workshop. A source provided IndieWire with two Iranian news stories, which appear to have been posted in 2012, detailing Shokri’s story and allegedly serving as research for “A Hero.”

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

Masihzadeh’s classmate Shamas has reportedly testified on her behalf in court. “I always follow what’s happening in Cannes, so I was listening when Mr. Farhadi did an interview [in 2021] about ‘A Hero,’” Shamas said. “When he gave a synopsis [of the film], I swear I froze. I thought, ‘That’s Azadeh’s documentary.’”

Negar Eskandarfar, director of the Karnameh Institute, told THR that the idea for “All Winners” was entirely Masihzadeh’s own.

Eskandarfar also noted a similar plagiarism claim against Farhadi that surfaced from another student in an earlier workshop in 2011. But that student, speaking on anonymity, did not pursue legal action, and told THR, “Mr. Farhadi is a genius filmmaker and what he did with my story is his work.”

IndieWire has reached out to representatives for Farhadi for comment, as well as for Amazon Studios.

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