When the documentary “The Iran Job” premiered at LA Film Festival earlier this summer, it was met with such a warm response that the festival had to add another screening to the schedule to accommodate the demand. This was due in no small part to the winning personality of subject Kevin Sheppard, a professional basketball player from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, hired to play on an Iranian basketball team, and the genuinely moving and topical film that director Till Schauder crafted out of one man’s journey. Our review said the film was, “a highly entertaining, moving documentary that offers a unique perspective on the country through this one man.”
We got a chance to sit down with Sheppard and Schauder in Los Angeles as they promoted the film in anticipation of its Los Angeles release at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center theaters on Friday, September 28th. The film will open in New York on October 12th at the IFC Center. They are hoping to distribute the film widely with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, bringing this tale of cross-cultural understanding to a larger audience in the U.S. The filmmakers discussed the similarities in documentary and fiction films, how basketball can break down cultural barriers and be a vehicle for talking about serious international issues, and the importance of humor in opening viewers up to new experiences.
The “casting” of the documentary was just as important to Schauder as it would be in making a fiction film.
Schauder described what he was looking for in a subject and what he found in Sheppard, saying, “I knew from my background as a fiction filmmaker that at the end of the day, your characters are what makes a movie. In the case of a documentary where there’s not a script, where you cannot enhance things artificially, the character becomes even more important, because you really rely on that person to create something by virtue of his personality. What I was looking for, most of all, was somebody who doesn’t censor himself.” In addition to being a natural in front of the camera, Schauder appreciated that Sheppard is “perceptive, you could see that right away, he’s smart and intelligent, and on top of that, he’s really funny and that is a great quality, especially when you’re making a film that has the potential to touch some subjects that are serious…I felt that if we can get people to laugh, it will open them up.”
Embarking on the filmmaking process wasn’t easy for Sheppard, but he decided to do it to help dispel some cultural stereotypes about Iran and his lifestyle as a journeyman basketball player.
Sheppard said, “When I was at home in the Virgin Islands, a lot of my friends would call me and make a lot of jokes, ‘Did you ride camels to practice today? Did you drink camel soup today?’ They would make all these ridiculous statements. I said, well maybe I should do this movie and give them an opportunity to see how I live, and maybe it will change their perception of the Iranian people, which they knew nothing about. This could be a good opportunity for them, to go on a journey with me, and hopefully I can change their minds.” In his relationship with the director, Sheppard said the good thing was that Schauder “never told me what to do, he just let me be myself, it became natural to me. I could just be myself, and sooner or later it just became invisible to me, not only to me but to all of us.”
Additionally, Sheppard commented on his ability to remain true to himself while in a foreign culture and on camera, saying, “I always have an open mind wherever I go and wherever I play. So I respect no matter what. But I always bring my culture into it too so you can have an idea of what I’m like. And I always said 'There’s no faking me,' so what you see is what you get. So that’s how I am at home, with my family, with my friends… what he [Schauder] saw in St. Croix was the same that he saw in Iran. I’m the same no matter what. But I am conscious enough to know when to go over my boundaries and when to step back.”
The supporting characters were just as important to show Sheppard in context, and Schauder treated them almost like a screenwriter would.
Schauder commented on his treatment of the supporting characters, saying “with characters, you sometimes get the sense right away that they’re going to be great. Like with the girls in Iran, I right away knew this was going to be a very, very important part of the film, I think they kind of make the film, with all due respect for Kevin. But they are what makes it special I think. And the same with Abdullah, the janitor, those types of characters I knew would be great.” Regarding Sheppard’s Serbian roommate and teammate, Zoran, Schauder said, “because I spent so much time with them, I saw that this was like a comedic couple. This guy [Sheppard] is like this ball of energy and fun, and then this tall guy who never speaks, it was a funny combination.”
It wasn’t easy to incorporate many of the supporting characters though, as Sheppard was very protective of his family and girlfriend Leah, who was resistant to his leaving to go play in Iran. Schauder worked to incorporate these characters to show Sheppard in relation to his family, and as storytelling elements within the film, saying, “it was a little bit of sneaking in or trying to get to a point where they both became a little more comfortable with the idea,” and eventually, “after a few months of editing we found a way to make that resistance work as a real commentary.” Much in the same way that a filmmaker writes a script, Schauder had to “think about orchestrational characters,” which is complicated in the documentary process because “you can’t do that beforehand, you have to look at what’s going on, look at who could fill that role, and that’s what I did, and you have to do it on the fly, at least when you start shooting.” Most importantly, with all of the characters, “you always want to have each arc completed. That’s not always easy, it doesn’t always work, some arcs are left a little more open.”
The wild and crazy basketball fans of Iran serve to add more color to the film, but Sheppard said he fed off their energy during games.
He praised their enthusiasm saying, “as an athlete, it breeds the kind of invisible energy that everybody keeps talking about, that twelve-man spirit. It only makes you want to play harder for them because you know how much they care. If you can just stand up and hear two thousand people calling your name, it makes you think you’re important to them so I shouldn’t let them down. It only makes you play better and harder.”
Despite all the issues that the film engages with, it’s still a sports movie at heart, and Schauder relied on that structure to guide the documenatry.
Schauder said, “my real interest was using basketball as an excuse or as a platform to get into what I was really interested in, the social fabric of that country, the people, the youth, the zeitgeist and the culture clash. I figured the basketball can help provide a structure, when you do a documentary, things are hard to predict and so you just don’t know. I was hoping that if all fails, at least I have the structure of a beginning, a middle and an end of the season. Obviously I was hoping to not just have to rely on that, and that’s why all these other threads are so necessary and so important. We did use the season as a spine, and that was a nice way to not lose your path along the way."
There may be another sports movie in Schauder’s future…
As for what's next, Schauder said, “We’ve had actually some interest in turning ‘The Iran Job’ into a feature film, so that could happen but you never know, I believe it when I see it type of thing.” Schauder’s pondering a doc about a Jewish-American ice hockey player whose ancestors were killed by the Nazis and now plays for the German National Team as a possible project, but needs to convince his subject to do the film. He said, “I have to admit that with documentaries, I like them for their substance, it’s much more gratifying to make a film that actually is relevant and matters. On the other hand they just take a long time to make. I need to find that balance.”
As for Sheppard, he’s retired from professional basketball, but now he’s “back on St. Croix working with kids. A lot of young men are dropping out of school, so I formed a non-profit organization, Choices Basketball Association. What I do is after school programs for those kids, creating a venue for them to play a little basketball. As long as I have their attention in basketball I can continue to shift their minds towards positive futures and positive things. So far the guys are showing up in numbers. I’m hopeful to get some more support but I’m not giving up.”