During the Q&A after the screening of “The Iran Job,” director Till Schauder described how the idea for a documentary about “journeymen” professional basketball players in Iran came to him before he had a subject that could carry his documentary. His wife and producer Sarah Nodjoumi is Iranian-American, and the political repercussions surrounding these athletes pursuing the dream to play professionally, anywhere, intrigued the filmmaking duo. After starting to film the documentary with a few players who were “nice enough,” they happened upon an American player named Kevin Sheppard, from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and instantly knew he was their man. And aren’t they lucky that they did find Kevin, because “The Iran Job” could be very different if it weren’t for Kevin’s big-hearted friendliness and disarming sense of humor that obliterates cultural barriers. The result is a documentary that combines elements of the sports movie, fish-out-of-water story, political film and personal portrait, offering an entertaining and fascinating look at this one man in this country.
The film quickly introduces Kevin at home in St. Croix, comfortably ensconced with his parents, grandmother and girlfriend Leah. Kevin excelled in the ASC College Basketball conference, but the NBA dream never came true, so he’s traveled the world playing professional basketball in various countries like China and Venezuela. Before long, he’s on the road again, recruited by an upstart Iranian basketball team with designs of going to the Super League playoffs. Pretty soon Kevin finds himself in Shiraz, Iran, with a team of young, inexperienced players, a 7-foot Serbian roommate named Z; in the land of non-alcoholic beer and women covered head to toe. He makes the best of it though, befriending everyone in sight with his easy laugh and affectionately rambunctious nature. The Iranians are not immune to Kevin’s charms, drawn in by his personality, and they are eager to tell him they “love black people!” Which amuses him to no end.
Of course it’s not all easy laughs and new friends, Kevin’s got to lead the last-ranked team into the playoffs; and keep his cool while he does so. In a burst of frustration after losing a game, he kicks a sideline trashcan, which is broadcast on the evening news as an “attack on a bucket.” While it’s played for laughs, the issue is deadly serious, meriting team meetings exhorting Kevin to lead the others by example. This is where the job part of it comes into play: Kevin’s being paid quite a bit to get this team where it needs to go, and that’s his duty. The film moves along at a nice clip, utilizing graphics during each game to show how A.S. Shiraz (his team) moves up and down in the rankings, and the games are shot and edited efficiently, giving only the right amount of information for each one. You will be on the edge of your seat as Kevin hits jumpers at the buzzer, spurred by the wild Iranian fans in the stands who are dancing, singing and playing all sorts of percussion instruments (Kevin isn’t even sure how much of the game they are watching…).
While the game footage is exciting, the film focuses more on Kevin’s life in Iran. He befriends a woman from his physical therapy office, and soon, she and her two girlfriends are hanging with Kevin’s crew. While it seems that Kevin is appreciative for simply the friendship of women, something he has probably taken for granted at home, having been surrounded by empowered women in his life (girlfriend Leah’s Skype conversations add a nice opposing representation of American women), this friendship is a whole new ballgame for the Iranian women, who have to sneak out the backdoor of the apartment and hide whenever anyone stops by because it’s illegal for women to be in a man’s apartment. Their talks with foreigners like Kevin and Z offer a chance for them to voice their frustrations and concerns about the situation of women in Iran. For them, it’s not that Islam is so restrictive, but that the Islamic government is, and for a few days during the filming, women are randomly banned from attending sports events.
As the playoffs heat up, so does the presidential election between Ahmahdinejad and Mousavi, and filmmaker Schauder intercuts the basketball contest with the campaign, juxtaposing debates with 3 point shots, and mobs of political protestors with fanatical basketball fans. The way in which he has woven all of these elements together comes to a great climax at this point, seamlessly creating a film that is a sports movie, personal portrait, and political exploration of this country. Kevin says he wants to stay away from politics and just do his job, but if the personal is political, his natural curiosity about his friends and the people he lives with creates the environment for a subtle political message to emerge, or at least an opportunity for some Iranians to have their voices heard. Kevin is there for the Iranian protests that kicked off the Arab Spring, and he realizes that these protestors are just like his friends, could have been them, and that their fighting for their rights is much like the African American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s which afforded Kevin his.
“The Iran Job” is a highly entertaining, moving documentary that offers a unique perspective on the country through this one man. Many at the Los Angeles Film Festival were affected by it, drawn in by Kevin and his warm personality. Filmmakers Schauder and Nojoumi are attempting to self-distribute the film, and are hoping to do a small theatrical run in the fall. It’s such a warm, winning tale that seeking it out is worth your while. [A-]