With the newest round of Iran nuclear talks scheduled for next week and crippling sanctions planned for July, it is easy to forget that Iran is a place where people live, work, flirt and — gasp! — play basketball.
A new documentary, The Iran Job, which premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival Friday, follows Kevin Sheppard, an American basketball player who plays for A.S. Shiraz in Iran. Captain of the team, he’s charged with taking an abysmal team to the playoffs — a daunting task if he were Iranian, but even more daunting as he navigates his way through a society that is very different than his own.
Sheppard’s got jokes all along the way as he makes up slang, drinks non-alcoholic beer, and interacts with locals who, unaccustomed to seeing black men in the bazaar, love to declare, “I love black people!”
“[Kevin] had the exact qualities we were looking for in our protagonist,” says Till Schauder, the director, “because they created an opportunity to add fun and positive energy to a film that could otherwise easily fall into the trap of ‘another-Middle Eastern-the-world-is-about-to-end’ flick.”
It worked. The film is funny as it points out the differences in culture; it’s sad when it highlights the life of a girl who wants to get out; and it’s a nail-biter as we root for an underdog team.
Schauder and his producer (and Iranian wife) Sara Nodjoumi first became interested in the idea of an American player in Iran in 2008, when they heard of players being fined for breaking the embargo. After a long search, they eventually found Sheppard and decided to follow him as he prepared to go to Iran. Ultimately, the couple wasn’t able to secure journalist visas and so Schauder, who is German, went under the guise of a tourist.
“I packed a small HDV camera, a wireless mic, and one extension cable,” he said. After several trips to Iran, and what must have been a miracle in the editing room, The Iran Job became a full narrative.
One of the most taut story lines was between Sheppard and three young Iranian women who risked their safety, and reputations, to visit Sheppard’s home, take him out, and talk about the frustrations Iranian youth face today. One girl in particular, Elaheh, with her full face of makeup and a nose-job that has become almost ubiquitous for young women, really went out on the line. The fact that she went to his house was equivalent to a scantily-clad girl having a one-night stand after a long night of drinking in the US. She invited him to her home, where they had an awkward dinner with her parents. She took him to the streets during a holy holiday. Their relationship was both cringe-worthy, like when she lingered in the bleachers, and inspiring. You respected her boldness and were embarrassed that she had to expose herself.
These different story lines betrayed the fact that Schauder was truly embedded in Sheppard’s world, but also the world of his teammates and friends.
Schauder’s last trip came just around protests erupted in 2009, what some might call Iran’s prelude to the Arab Spring. He was detained and put on a black list while Nodjoumi waited in New York, five-months pregnant. Tortured with a loop of the 1982 World Cup final match where Germany suffered a humiliating defeat, Schauder was released the next morning.