Did the Oscar-Winning Director Asghar Farhadi Steal Ideas?

Masihzadeh’s mother flew to Tehran to take care of her. “I am one of those girls who is so outgoing, who likes to travel, who knows so many people,” Masihzadeh told me. But she felt abandoned by most of her friends and colleagues. Soltani said that people attacked her, too, for supporting Masihzadeh. “I think

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Masihzadeh’s mother flew to Tehran to take care of her. “I am one of those girls who is so outgoing, who likes to travel, who knows so many people,” Masihzadeh told me. But she felt abandoned by most of her friends and colleagues. Soltani said that people attacked her, too, for supporting Masihzadeh. “I think we can really study the mind and culture of Iran through this case,” Soltani told me. “We are always being humiliated throughout the world, and Farhadi gives us a sense of power and progress. I think, from the unconscious part of their mind, people just don’t want to listen to any story that might make our idol, our hero, come down.”

A few days after the second meeting with the head of the House of Cinema, Masihzadeh was asked to attend a third meeting. But, at that point, she couldn’t speak without stuttering, and she no longer believed that anything productive could come of talking to Farhadi, so she declined. A representative from the House of Cinema called her lawyer and offered the equivalent of roughly sixteen hundred dollars for Masihzadeh’s contribution to “A Hero,” which has earned more than 2.8 million dollars in theatrical releases and is now streaming on Amazon Prime, and proposed that she be listed in the credits as a member of a group of researchers. Masihzadeh turned down the offer. “When you humiliate someone by saying, ‘You are a liar, you are deluded,’ and then later say, ‘I want to credit you as a researcher,’ my response is ‘No,’ of course,” she told me. “I was not the researcher of ‘A Hero.’ I was the director of my documentary. No one came to me asking me to do research for ‘A Hero.’ ” She asked for a credit saying that “A Hero” had been inspired by her documentary, but Rad told me that, given the differences between the two films, “we could not accept this.” The House of Cinema’s arbitration council had already issued a formal decision concluding that Masihzadeh’s claim was false, an “anti-cultural move” that would interfere with “A Hero” becoming “a worthy ambassador and representative of Iranian cinema in the road of its global success.”

Masihzadeh continued reposting Instagram stories in which people remarked on the similarity between her documentary and “A Hero.” A few weeks after the House of Cinema meetings, Farhadi filed a complaint with the investigative branch of the Tehran Culture and Media Court, accusing Masihzadeh of defamation and of spreading false news. She faced up to a year in prison or seventy-four lashes. Farhadi told me that he hated the idea of bringing a criminal complaint against his student, but said that his lawyer had told him, “We have no choice, because they are spreading these dishonesties on social media.”

To prepare for the trial, Masihzadeh saw “A Hero,” which had premièred in Iran four days after her meeting with Farhadi, six times in a week. One night, as she was going through her notes for court, she remembered a piece of advice that Farhadi had given the screenwriting-workshop students: they should give their characters ordinary, recognizable jobs. She sensed that Farhadi’s favorite character in “A Hero” was the man to whom Rahim is in debt. The man articulates the thematic heart of the movie, asking why a person should be celebrated as a hero for simply returning money as opposed to keeping it. “Where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?” he asks.

She realized that the creditor owns a photocopy shop with a copy machine that whirs as he talks. “Mr. Farhadi, why?” she said to herself. “Why did you choose a job like that? Do you yourself know what you did?”

In November, 2src21, the investigative branch of the Tehran Media and Culture Court held its first hearing on the defamation case. Masihzadeh told me that she made sure to shower before the hearing, knowing that “they will arrest me for two or three days, until my family brings me money.” She went on, “Because of that signature, I felt that, whatever happens to me, I deserve it.” But in her first conversation with the magistrate deciding the case, she said, he told her that the statement she had signed was legally meaningless. She was still stuttering, but, after the magistrate’s remark, “little by little, I got my voice back,” she said. “I felt released.”

That day, Farhadi made the most explicit political statement of his career. In an interview with a news agency in Tehran, a pro-government filmmaker had accused Farhadi of being “both inside and outside the government,” and of “eating at everyone’s table.” On Instagram, addressing the filmmaker, Farhadi wrote, “I have nothing to do with your regressive way of thinking, and don’t need your praise and support. If the selection of my film ‘A Hero’ as Iran’s official Academy Awards submission has made you reach the conclusion that I’m under your banner, cancel this decision. I don’t care.” He went on, “Let me put it frankly: I hate you!” He said that he wished to stay in his homeland and continue making films for Iranians, but noted, “It seems that there is a great effort on all sides to discourage this love and hope, some by publishing distorted and fake memories, others by slandering and making false claims.”

Masihzadeh said that, when she read the last line, she felt, “he is mentioning me, but it is hidden. And I was not the only one who had that thought. People kept sending it to me and saying, ‘He’s saying your memories are fake.’ ”

Two weeks after the first hearing, Masihzadeh flew to Shiraz to visit Mohammadreza Shokri in prison. She had decided to make a documentary about what was happening to her, but, she said, “I was looking at it not as a film but as a document to show to the court.”

Shokri was in Adel-Abad prison, which has thousands of inmates, some of them political prisoners who have been sentenced to death. In 2src2src, there was an international outcry when the prison executed a wrestling champion who had protested Iran’s regime; before he died, he said that officers had tortured him, beating his legs and hands with a baton, pouring alcohol in his nose, and pulling a plastic bag over his head. (The government denied this.)

Masihzadeh, with a cameraman and a sound technician whom she’d hired, met Shokri in the prison’s visiting room, a long hall with a row of windows near the ceiling. “Hello, Ms. Masihzadeh, how are you?” Shokri said, holding his palm to his chest. It had been seven years since they’d seen each other, and during that time he’d had only one visitor, his mother. He wore an olive-green prison uniform; the stubble on his face had grayed. “I am at your service,” he told her.

They sat down at a plastic table. “I want to take you out of here right now,” she told him.

“How?” he asked, laughing.

“I have thought of some ways,” she said. “I want to take you to the cinema to watch a movie together.”

Shokri burst out laughing.

“Have you seen Meredith? She just got her braces off.”

Cartoon by Sara Lautman

“You don’t believe me?” she asked. “We want to go to the cinema and watch a movie—will you come with us?”

“If they allow me,” he said, laughing so hard that he put his head down on the table. “I swear to God, you know better, you are just like my sister.”

She had applied for permission to take Shokri to a 1src a.m. screening of “A Hero” at a theatre in Shiraz. Shokri, whose feet were shackled, sat in a plush red seat, next to a prison guard to whom he was handcuffed. The manager of the theatre did not want customers to watch a movie alongside a prisoner, so Masihzadeh, after borrowing money from an acquaintance, had purchased every seat.

Masihzadeh hadn’t told Shokri anything about the movie in advance. When it was over, he was crying. “I’m on edge,” he told Masihzadeh in the lobby of the theatre. “The life story that happened to me . . . they came and used it with a different script.”

When Masihzadeh was making her documentary, Shokri had asked her not to film his brother, who had a disability that made it difficult for him to speak, and she had agreed. In “A Hero,” Rahim has a son with a stutter who becomes a kind of sympathy prop for a charity raising money on his behalf.

“I told you please do not show my brother’s video anywhere,” he told her, crying.

“I am truly sorry,” Masihzadeh said.

“God bless you,” he said. “My brother’s part put a lot of pressure on me.”

“Did your brother pass away, Mr. Shokri?” Masihzadeh asked.

He nodded, still crying.

“My condolences to you, Mr. Shokri,” she said. “I did not know that.”

“He has put this boy’s stuttering instead of my brother’s disability,” Shokri said. He wiped his eyes with the surgical face mask that he had worn during the movie. “Excuse me for saying this—this is really a robbery. He was not supposed to play with my dignity.”

They returned to the prison together, and, as Shokri continued to reflect on the movie, he sometimes called the prisoner Rahim, and sometimes referred to Rahim as “me.” He said, “My feeling is that Mr. Director could have at least come to visit me.” He began imagining how Farhadi might have asked his permission and then told him, “I will help you to get out of here. I will make the movie and help you to get out.” Shokri had a daughter, whom he hadn’t seen for many years. “I would have accepted,” he said.

Masihzadeh bought two textbooks about intellectual-property law. She had decided to represent herself. “Unfortunately, my life was cancelled,” she told me. “From morning to night, I was just thinking about my case and memorizing law sentences.” Often, she showed up for the hearings crying.

The case was focussed on her statements on social media, but she hoped to introduce new evidence, like video footage of the workshop. “People were telling me, ‘You have to sue Farhadi, too, so you can bring all the documents to the judge,’ ” she said. She called the secretary of the House of Cinema. “I said, ‘Excuse me, please tell Mr. Farhadi that it does not give a good impression to society when a teacher opens a case against his student. Please ask him to take it back. Otherwise I will sue him. I don’t want to, because he is my master, but I have to defend myself.’ ” She didn’t get a response.

On November 3src, 2src21, nearly a month after Farhadi filed his complaint, Masihzadeh lodged a counterclaim, for plagiarism, intellectual-property theft, and “illegitimate gains by fraud or abuse of privilege.” If convicted, Farhadi could face up to three years in prison and the possibility of handing over the proceeds of “A Hero” to Masihzadeh. From prison, Shokri also filed a complaint against Farhadi, for defamation and “revealing personal information and secrets,” among other allegations. He wrote that he had “granted the exclusive permission of making my real life to Ms. Masihzadeh” and had never given Farhadi permission to depict his story. He described how “A Hero” dramatized the “laryngeal problem of my brother suffering from shortness of breath while speaking”—a subject that he had told Masihzadeh not to mention under any circumstances, because he feared it would be used for “arousing pity.”

When Masihzadeh went to the House of Cinema to pick up a document for the court, she said that Shahsavari, the head of the institution, urged her to retract her complaint. She said that she would, if Farhadi took back his. But, in January, Farhadi filed a second complaint against her, this one for defamation and spreading false news by saying that she’d been coerced into signing a statement. “Why should I force her into doing this?” Farhadi said to me. “It was a very normal letter.”

Iran has not joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, signed by a hundred and eighty-one countries. The country has domestic copyright laws, but they are irregularly enforced, in part because few lawyers specialize in the field. Some Islamic legal scholars have questioned the legitimacy of a right to intellectual property, which is not clearly laid out by early Islamic jurists or by the Hadith, the corpus of sayings passed down from the Prophet Muhammad. Earlier this year, in an online cinema magazine, Behrouz Afkhami, a film director and a former member of the Iranian parliament, characterized the notion of copyright as a Western construct. “Anyone who thinks he has an idea that has not been discussed before usually has not read enough stories,” he said.

Masihzadeh’s documentary approaches Shokri’s story with a level of rigor and curiosity that feels anthropological and almost joyful. Farhadi’s film is seeking a different kind of truth; to observe how he takes small details from Shokri’s narrative and knits them into intersecting strands of plot is to see the process by which a story becomes art. Even a seemingly minor detail, like Rahim’s son’s speech impediment, justifies its own existence, altering the film’s moral and emotional atmosphere. In an interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, when asked why he’d chosen to include “that heartbreaking speech impediment, which is so instrumental to the script,” Farhadi said that he’d made the choice when he began writing. “The main character of the film is somebody who can’t make decisions,” he said. “But, at the end of the film, he makes a decision.” Rahim refuses to make a video that might help free him from prison, because it would mean exposing his son’s speech impediment to the public. “That decision makes him a hero in front of his child,” Farhadi said. “That’s why I put in this issue of the kid having a speech impediment—so he can make a decision.”

Copyright law differentiates between ideas, which cannot be owned, and the expression of ideas, which can be. Farhadi and his lawyer presented two different arguments to the court: first, that Farhadi had given Masihzadeh the idea to work on Shokri’s story, and, second, that it didn’t matter who originally found the story, because Shokri’s case had been reported in the media before Masihzadeh’s documentary, so neither of them could claim ownership of it. The court ordered the Karnameh Institute to give Masihzadeh the roughly sixty hours of videos documenting the entire workshop. Masihzadeh compressed the footage into an hour-long compilation of the moments most relevant to the case, so that the magistrate could analyze whether Shokri’s story was an established set of facts, free for anyone to interpret, or whether Masihzadeh had uncovered its contours for the first time.

In March, 2src22, after numerous hearings spread over five months, the magistrate issued an eighteen-page opinion, concluding that the story had not been in the public domain. He wrote that the classroom footage showed Masihzadeh introducing the idea of Shokri’s story and explaining that there were two newspaper articles about it. Neither was available online, so Masihzadeh had borrowed old copies of the papers that Shokri kept in his prison cell. The magistrate wrote that he had searched for the articles online himself, to no avail.

The magistrate dismissed the complaints filed by Farhadi and Shokri, but he found merit in Masihzadeh’s claims, pointing to forty-four segments in “A Hero” that either resembled her documentary or drew from her research. He indicted Farhadi, for violating his student’s intellectual-property rights, and referred the case to a criminal court, to determine if Farhadi was guilty of the charge.

Eskandarfar said that one of the twelve students who had signed the statement in support of Farhadi came to her office crying. The student was worried that she could be sued for putting her name on the letter. “She was quite scared,” Eskandarfar told me. “I asked her, ‘Why did you sign that letter?’ And she said, ‘For the same reason Azadeh signed her letter: Farhadi was my teacher, and it was expected of me.’ ”

After the magistrate’s decision, Masihzadeh and I met in Istanbul, because it was safer to meet there than in Iran, where many journalists have been arrested. Although Masihzadeh’s hair was black, she immediately confessed that she’d dyed it. “My hair went completely white,” she told me. “It happened in one year.” Our first conversation lasted thirteen hours. Masihzadeh was struggling to process how she had become Farhadi’s antagonist, and she seemed bewildered by her own commitment to continuing the fight. “Sometimes I think it is not a good thing,” she told me. “Until this year, I was a very simple kind of girl.” She said that, when Farhadi first filed his criminal complaint, “I thought I would go to court and accept all the consequences and show how weak I was in front of Farhadi, how he betrayed me. I would be the person who is the victim.” She guessed that Farhadi had made this calculation, too. “But suddenly I said, ‘Why? So people can cry for me? So I can close my eyes and give all the power to him? Because it is the rule that women are weak, I should be weak?’ ”

Although the magistrate had ruled in her favor, Masihzadeh received hundreds of messages attacking her character. She was accused of being a whore, a spy, an opportunist. “It was a good opportunity for her to show her film to many people,” Sedaghat told me. “With my knowledge of her and the lies I have heard from her, I think this is what has happened.” He said that the filmmakers who supported her were jealous of Farhadi’s success.

In a statement on Instagram after the magistrate’s decision, Rad repeated the claim that Shokri’s story had been in the public domain, and, as proof, he posted links to two articles about Shokri in Iranian newspapers. Masihzadeh searched for Shokri’s story online. “I thought, Wow, they have suddenly filled the Internet with this story,” she said. (When I asked a veteran journalist in Iran how such a thing might be possible, he said, “Give me a piece of news, and I can put it on a hundred sites—it’s easy.”)

Masihzadeh was more than thirty thousand dollars in debt, after borrowing money to pay for consultations with lawyers, among other expenses. She had gone for a year with barely an income. She’d been making a short film in the north of Iran, but she said that the producer abruptly pulled out of the project, citing her case with Farhadi. (The producer could not be reached for comment.) “I wanted to confess to you that I am not powerful at all,” she told me, crying. “They are killing me in the cinema. My career is going to end.”

The international film community did not seem fazed by a decision rendered by a legal system known to be unjust and corrupt. When I met Masihzadeh in Istanbul, Farhadi had just been named a juror for the 2src22 Cannes Film Festival. Later, he was elected president of the Zurich Film Festival jury. “It’s like the whole world is laughing at me,” she said.

Iran’s judicial system categorizes crimes as “forgivable” and “unforgivable.” For crimes in the first category, victims can ask the state to stop the trial process if they have decided to make peace with the perpetrator. After the first hearing before the criminal court, in June, 2src22, Masihzadeh said, one of Farhadi’s lawyers, a human-rights advocate who had been hired for the proceedings, suggested that she and Farhadi have a joint press conference and announce that there had been a misunderstanding. Masihzadeh said that she responded, “Please ask Mr. Farhadi to go to the press conference and confess that ‘a human makes mistakes, and I am a human being, and I made a mistake.’ Then I will take my complaint back.”

They did not reach an agreement. Farhadi gave the criminal court a nine-page chart analyzing the alleged similarities between “A Hero” and Masihzadeh’s documentary. He put each similarity in one of three categories: “news” (the detail had already been published in an article), “custom” (a character is drawing on a conventional phrase or idea, like comparing a good thing to a miracle), or “idea, plan, guidance” (the films resembled each other because he had instructed his students to adopt his cinematic approach). “Ambiguity in characterization, doubts about the authenticity of conversations and situations, changing the direction of the story, etc., are all constant elements of my work,” he wrote in a statement to the court. It seemed like a joke, he added, that he could be accused of stealing these very elements from a student.

The case has now been before the criminal court for five months, but it may be much longer before the judge reaches a decision. Mani Haghighi told me that, when he spoke with Farhadi about the case last summer, it was clear that Farhadi believed he had done nothing wrong: “He was just in shock. He told me, ‘This was my idea. I gave it to the students, and then they came back with the results.’ ” Haghighi hasn’t watched any of Farhadi’s films since “The Past,” from 2src13, because he didn’t want to be asked to speak publicly about Farhadi or his work, but he said, “If you ask me—as a person who hasn’t seen either ‘A Hero’ or the documentary but just knows the guy extremely well—this is not plagiarism. Asghar is far too intelligent and interesting as an artist, as a writer, to do something like that. This is him wanting control over authorship. It’s a character flaw.”

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