Shokri is a prisoner who, on his one-day leave from prison, finds a backpack full of money: instead of using it to pay his debt – the cause of his imprisonment – he tries to find the owner, in order to return the sum. He is “a hero”, being featured on TV and in newspapers. But is he? What part of that is true? And what do the prison authorities have to do with it? Meanwhile, outside the rectangular frame of the film, a plot-twist was imposed on the film in which reality became a parody of film: the film itself becomes the object of fraud and the centre of conflict over authenticity, imposture and plagiarism.
“Azadeh Masihzadeh, the former film student of Asghar Farhadi who has accused the two-time Oscar-winning Iranian director of stealing the idea for his new film A Hero from her original documentary, has been acquitted of defamation charges by an Iranian court. Farhadi had brought the suit against Masihzadeh after she publicly claimed the plot for A Hero was taken directly from her 2018 documentary All Winners, All Losers. In response, Masihzadeh filed a plagiarism suit against Farhadi. The Iranian court has now dismissed Farhadi’s defamation suit, saying there was “insufficient evidence” to support the director’s claims that Masihzadeh was deliberately trying to damage the director’s reputation with her plagiarism claims. Farhadi can still appeal the ruling. According to her lawyer, if Masihzadeh had been found guilty, she potentially faced 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 following year, Azadeh Masihzadeh learned that Asghar Farhadi was holding a filmmaking workshop at the Karnameh Institute of Arts and Culture, a prestigious cultural center in Tehran. Farhadi, who is fifty, is the only director in the twenty-first century to have won the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film twice. [...] Masihzadeh received permission from Farhadi to work alone and to find her own story. To keep her expenses down, she looked for ideas in Shiraz. A friend’s aunt said she’d seen a local TV report about an inmate who, on leave from prison, had found a bag of money and returned it. His name was Mohammadreza Shokri, and he had been in prison for five years for a debt. Masihzadeh couldn’t find any information about the story online, so she went to the office of the TV station and asked a reporter there to show her the segment. [...] At the next class, two months later, Masihzadeh showed the final part of her film, a chronicle of her search for the woman who claimed the money that Shokri had found. Masihzadeh finally locates the woman in a rural valley, eight hours from Shiraz. But, when Masihzadeh meets her, it’s unclear whether she ever lost—or claimed—the money, or if Shokri and the prison concocted the story of his good deed in order to create positive publicity for the prison, which Shokri said had executed a girl on the day that he discovered the money. Farhadi told the class that Masihzadeh’s documentary showed the importance of layering revelations until the viewer reaches a “beautiful point” where the different pieces fit together. “You let this case go,” he told her. “You let it get edited.” [...] With permission from Eskandarfar and Farhadi, Masihzadeh hired her own editor and submitted her documentary to film festivals. At the Shiraz Film Festival, in 2018, her movie, which she titled “All Winners, All Losers,” won the Special Jury Prize. “I will definitely, definitely continue making documentaries, because I feel it is part of my life,” she said as she accepted the award. [...]
Farhadi invited Masihzadeh to sit at a desk and then told her that he was working on a new film, called “A Hero,” which was set in Shiraz.
According to Masihzadeh, Farhadi complimented her on her Shirazi accent and asked if she might want to act in his film. “I asked him, ‘Me?’ ” Masihzadeh said. “An actress?” She said she had no acting talent; when watching her documentary, she cringed when she heard her own voice. But she said she would be thrilled to work as an assistant, perhaps scouting locations in Shiraz. She and Farhadi discussed her knowledge of the city, and then, she said, Shafiei put a typed piece of paper on the desk. Masihzadeh assumed it would be a contract formalizing her job, but the paper said:
I ____, daughter of ____, holder of National I.D. No. ____, residing at ____, herewith, in full physical and mental health, and with utter consent, declare that the documentary film “All Winners, All Losers,” which was produced between 2013 and 2019, is based on Mr. Asghar Farhadi’s proposal and idea that he shared in his documentary-filmmaking workshop.
Shafiei gave her a new sheet of paper and told her to rewrite the statement, filling in the blanks, and then sign it.
For a moment, Masihzadeh said, she felt as if she couldn’t breathe: “I raised my hand and said, ‘Mr. Farhadi, can we perhaps speak about this?’ He said, ‘Well, sign for now and write down your National I.D. correctly so we can buy you a plane ticket to Shiraz.’”
She asked him, “Mr. Farhadi, is A Hero related to my documentary?”
He told her he had written his film before she made hers, she said. [...]
A Hero had its world première, at the Cannes Film Festival. In interviews, Farhadi explained that he had tried to cast people who were not professional actors, because he wanted to go beyond realism and make the film look “exactly like life.” He said, “I thought it should be closer to a documentary.”
Masihzadeh asked a few friends who were at Cannes to call her after watching the film. They reported that it was about a prisoner in Shiraz named Rahim. When Rahim is on a leave from prison, where he’s been incarcerated for a debt, his girlfriend gives him a bag of gold that she found on the street, and he returns it to the owner, a mysterious woman. A few lines in “A Hero” are nearly identical to remarks that Shokri, the subject of Masihzadeh’s documentary, makes. Like Shokri, Rahim is a thin, fragile-looking man who is divorced with one child, works as a painter in the prison, has a family member with a speech impediment, and moves through the world passively, with a hapless smile. “Even when I am so angry, I smile,” Shokri had told Masihzadeh. In interviews, Farhadi said that he instructed the actor playing Rahim to “put on that broken smile whenever possible.” Farhadi told the actor, “When the character has more problems, smile more.” [...]
Most of Masihzadeh’s former classmates accused her of lying. Sedaghat, the student who had worked on the crew of “A Hero,” posted a story on Instagram saying that “the plan, idea, and process of making that documentary was completely formed by Asghar Farhadi.” He wrote, referring to Masihzadeh’s allegation, that he’d refrain from “analyzing why such behavior takes place, and the pathology of it.” Twelve students from the class signed a letter stating, “We want to strongly deny the false claim by Mr. Farhadi’s student that ‘A Hero’ is a copy of her documentary, which is a completely reverse account of the truth.”
Masihzadeh wanted to meet with Farhadi, but her message to his public-relations team went unanswered. “My hope was that everything could be solved by a very human speech,” she told me. “I just wanted him to come to me as a person and say, ‘I liked your story. But you are a student, and you should be quiet. Don’t tell anyone.’ I would say, ‘O.K., Mr. Farhadi, thank you for telling me. That’s O.K.’ ” [...]
Shahsavari, the head of the House of Cinema, told Masihzadeh to beware—people could use her accusation as an opportunity to impugn the prestige of Iranian cinema. He reminded her of one of the last scenes of “Casablanca,” when the hero, Rick, conceals the truth by telling the husband of a woman he still loves that their romance is over, before helping them escape the Nazis.
Masihzadeh, who knew the scene well, said, “He doesn’t lie, but he doesn’t tell the truth.”
“This is what we’ve learned from cinema,” Shahsavari said. He advised Masihzadeh to think carefully about the moral implications of telling the truth: Was it right to tell someone in a loud voice that she had too many freckles on her face? Or to tell a person that her nail polish was poorly done? He said, “The difference between telling the truth and shamelessness is a very thin hair.”
- 1Scott Roxborough, “Iran Court Finds Film Student Azadeh Masihzadeh Not Guilty in Asghar Farhadi Defamation Suit,” The Hollywood Reporter, 4 april 2022.
- 2Rachel Avic, “Did the Oscar-Winning Director Asghar Farhadi Steal Ideas?,” The New Yorker, 31 October 2022.[.fn]