Film Review: “The Iran Job” — Basketball and the Search for a Common Ground

“The Iran Job” is an engrossing documentary that cannily integrates basketball and a look at Iranian street life in the months leading up to and including the Green Movement protests.

The Iran Job: An American Basketball Player in Iran. Directed by Till Schauder. Playing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, through June 23 and June 26.

By Betsy Sherman

A celebratory moment in “The Iran Job”

For a documentary with such a highly charged subject as the interaction between Americans and Iranians, The Iran Job is a surprisingly breezy experience. That’s partly because the point of contact between the two cultures, basketball, is nicely kinetic. But it’s mostly because of the filmmakers’ choice of the charismatic, upbeat Kevin Sheppard as their subject. A college hoops standout who didn’t make it into the NBA, Sheppard became a journeyman, playing wherever in the world the money’s good. And it’s especially good in Iran, because so many players find the prospect of setting foot within the “Axis of Evil” too intimidating. The Iran Job is an engrossing movie that cannily integrates footage shot in the arena, scenes from Sheppard’s social life, and a look at Iranian street life in the months leading up to and including the Green Movement protests.

The film was made by Iranian-American producer Sara Nodjoumi and director Till Schauder (they’re a married couple). It follows the 2008-2009 season, during which Kevin played for the Iranian Super League’s team from the southwestern city of Shiraz. Schauder, who holds both German and U.S. passports, entered Iran on a tourist visa and shot the film largely on a clandestine basis, with a small HD video camera (he had some additional cameramen working with him). The results feel fresh, and never amateurish.

With a few bumps in the road, over the course of the season Sheppard improves his teammates’ game and helps them develop a winning attitude (“Get the W!” becomes their proud catchphrase, even for those who don’t speak English). Concurrently, Sheppard’s education about life in the Islamic Republic—especially the restricted lives of a trio of educated women who befriend him—deepens his view of the world.

Kevin Sheppard, an American basketball player in Iran, in “The Iran Job.” Photo: Till Schauder.

At the outset, Schauder’s camera focuses on prominent anti-American graffiti, but his subject, a conspicuous large black man with a large personality, finds that the average Iranian has interest in, and even affection for, American culture. Sheppard jokes around with a street vendor who used to live in Nashville, and finds that it’s not so hard to communicate, even with Iranians who don’t speak his language. Nevertheless, he stumbles into taboos he didn’t foresee: when, coming off the court, he kicks a bucket in frustration, he doesn’t realize that this action will become a shameful scandal for his team.

The most perplexing aspect of the culture clash to Sheppard is the separation of the sexes. He finds himself the object of desire—for social intercourse, if not more—of the team’s physical therapist, Hilda. She and her flirtatious friends Laleh and Elahah make a series of furtive visits to the apartment of Sheppard and his Serbian teammate Zoran. These scenes are riveting and revelatory, for the girlish energy exuded by these adult women and for their frank talk about the oppressive regime and the restrictions put on women.

The coincidental inauguration of the first African-American U.S. president during this particular basketball season raises Sheppard’s awareness of politics. But the documentary has a broader canvas than just the portrait of an athlete. It becomes part of an imperative we hear voiced by Barack Obama: the effort to find “common ground.”

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