An elderly woman’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. A man helps her get it started. She offers to pay him. The Good Samaritan refuses.

The old lady goes to a cafe. She is served by a heavily pregnant waitress. She hands the pregnant waitress, dressed in an apron, a $100 bill. The waitress leaves the room to collect her change and, when she returns, the old woman has left.

There is a note on the table, Pay it Forward style. It reads “we’ve all been there”. The pregnant waitress goes home to her husband. In a last moment twist, we discover the waitress’ husband is the same man who helped the old lady at the start.

That’s an account of what transpires in director Nicholas Clifford’s We’ve All Been There (available to watch here), which won the coveted fruit bowl trophy at Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival, on Sunday night.

It is also exactly what happens in The Chain of Love, a smaltzy song/musical video from American country musician Clay Walker. Except in Walker’s song, the note reads “I’ve been there too”.

Ordinarily such similarities — not just broad plot points but specific story, character and even visual details — would constitute an open and shut case of plagiarism. Viewers would be right to accuse Clifford of pilfering another artist’s work.

But in this case to do so would be ridiculous. Near the beginning of We’ve All Been There, crucial words appear: “Based on the short story What Goes Around Comes Around by Anon.” The musical video and the short film were adapted from the same source material. The Tropfest film clearly cites this; Walker’s video does not.

Anyone who accuses Clifford’s film of plagiarism would have to also accuse Anna Karenina, now screening in Australian cinemas, of the same crime. It is the latest big screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel.

But this didn’t stop The Australian from running the story anyway, despite identifying the (shared) source material. Under the headline “Tropfest winner is the third to be accused of plagiarism in six years“,  the story included comment from the filmmaker. “We did everything right with the best of intentions,” Clifford said. “It’s a real shame that it’s come to this.”

It may not have been the journalist’s intention, but this approach feels like a classic plucked from a political strategies handbook: ask somebody to respond to allegations of something you know they didn’t commit with the understanding that when they defend themselves (ie “I did not take drugs,” “I did not have an affair”), the damage is done. If there was a story to be written, the headline should have been something like ‘Tropfest winner not a cheat.’ But that doesn’t sound nearly as compelling.

Tropfest winners have been accused of plagiarism before, in 2007 and 2011.

This latest (non) incident says less about artistic crimes and more about the higher level of scrutiny being applied to organiser John Polson’s rock concert style festival, which evolved rapidly from its modest origins in a Sydney cafe in 1993.

Given there is a stark discrepancy between what the festival is and what the public perceive it to be, which I wrote about yesterday, expect more criticism in coming years. And going by the spray last night directed at me from Polson himself on Twitter, coupled with this extraordinary assumption, the festival may be wise to consider learning a thing or two about PR management and damage control.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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