Title: The Iran Job
Director: Till Schauder
With its glitz, glam and commercial-crossover appeal, the NBA is the gleam in the eye of every young, American, aspirant professional basketball player. Of course, roster spots are finite, and not everyone ends up there. For those who don’t make it, however, there are any number of overseas hoops leagues where, for at least a handful of years in their 20s, these players can go make some nice money while continuing to play the game they love — including, it turns out, in Iran. A fascinating and surprisingly funny story of unlikely cultural ambassadorship, the documentary “The Iran Job” charts one such season in the life of an American hoopster, culminating against the backdrop of something much bigger than basketball — the uprising and subsequent suppression of that Islamic country’s reformist Green Movement.
Perhaps because it’s directed by German-born filmmaker Till Schauder, “The Iran Job” locates an absorbing, cross-cultural universality with surprising ease. Part of this is achieved by way of eschewing a more rooted explanation of the talents of subject Kevin Sheppard, who hails from the city of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and played collegiately at Jacksonville University. Schauder smartly begins his story with Sheppard’s family — the mother and longtime girlfriend he’s reluctantly leaving behind — but “The Iran Job” doesn’t frame its story as a de facto “Hoop Dreams” sequel, and nor does it over-explicate the charismatic Sheppard’s particular skill set or professional ambitions. It presents him simply as a hard-working guy who’s accepted a job that involves a lot of (admittedly unusual) travel, and the result is a movie that one need not have any obsession or even familiarity with basketball to enjoy.
Speaking no Farsi, Sheppard arrives in Iran having accepted a one-year contract from A.S. Shiraz, an extremely young squad new to the prestigious Iranian Super League, a 13-team association whose rules provide a limit of two foreigners per squad. His roommate is seven-foot Serbian Zoran Majkic, the team’s other foreigner. The team’s owner makes it a stated goal to make the playoffs after the 24-game regular season, something no first-year team has ever done. Sheppard, a “nobody” in the United States, is looked to as the leader and go-to guy in Shiraz’s push for excellence.
Despite the many cultural differences — women and men are segregated in the crowd, each on different sides of the court — basketball is surprisingly popular in Iran. Big crowds turn out, and fans support their hometown teams in rowdy fashion, waving signs, shouting and banging homemade drums. “The Iran Job” is in this way a classic and often hilarious fish-out-of-water story. The local restaurant delivery boy is an amazing comic presence; he and Sheppard have a demonstrative dance that they cycle through whenever they cross paths. And when Sheppard corrals his affable landlord to help him search for a Christmas tree, the culturally confused results that unfold at a local botanist (“We’re looking for a large bush — it would be okay if it’s dry”) are flat-out hysterical.
Still, while “The Iran Job” connects so quickly and easily in large part to Sheppard’s laidback personality and charm, the movie achieves a deeper resonance from a surprising source — by presenting a nuanced look at Iranians who don’t slot into Western preconceptions. Most notably, Sheppard is befriended by the basketball team’s nurse and physical therapist, Hilda Khademi, as well as two of her friends — reform-minded Laleh and Elaheh, a pretty would-be actress with a melancholic center. Despite cultural restrictions that place many of their interactions outside the law, these women become almost co-leads of the movie, sharing their thoughts about religion, politics and gender inequality with Sheppard and Majkic in a series of late-night conversations at their apartment. Later, they dine as guests at Elaheh’s home.
These guileless interactions recall time on a pre-school playground or in a kindergarten class, where socially malleable tots regard one another with equal helpings of wide-eyed curiosity and sincerity. “The Iran Job” connects so deeply precisely because of its focus on the underclass — everyday people caught up in the hope of two respective presidential campaigns (2008 in America, and 2009 in Iran), and stepping over and around the more bellicose rhetoric of their governments. These shared and very human moments of tenderness and open-heartedness illustrate better than a thousand words of flowery rhetoric the principal of binding universality, and reveal the extolled American value of freedom to be a value for all humankind.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.TheIranJob.com.
Written by: Brent Simon