Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Jun. 19th
Director Till Schauder and his producing partner and wife Sara Nodjoumi lucked out when they were looking to make a film about American basketball players who risked big fines to play in Iran. On the verge of scrapping the project they found Kevin Sheppard, a talented point guard with charisma to burn and a veteran journeyman player who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In The Iran Job, Schauder follows Sheppard to Iran where he finds a first year team of scrub players and a society on the edge of a revolt that will become known as the Green Movement. In this, Schauder is lucky twice over: for a documentary about journeymen basketball players in Iran needs a strong central character, which Sheppard most certainly is, and the timing of his first season in the Iranian Super League creates a dramatic backdrop for the film.
What’s great about this film is that it allows us a view into two worlds most Americans don’t have a clue about– the life of international basketball players and Iran– through a framework we all get: the sports movie. There is the resolute drama as Sheppard slips into his natural role as team captain, despite the language barrier, and gets the young team from Shiraz into playoff shape. Off the court we watch as Kevin develops a friendship with three young Iranian women, in a society where fraternization between men and women isn’t just frowned upon: in some circumstances it’s downright illegal.
This human scale view of life inside Iran, even when seen from the perspective of an outsider, is something we just don’t get that often here in the West. Schauder paints a clear picture of a society caught in an identity crisis brought on by a love of tradition and a thirst for modernity. All this anchored on the life of Sheppard, so used to living out of a suitcase that he seems he might never settle down.
So: sports film, fish out of water story, and a travelogue. There’s also a love story. Either Kevin’s girlfriend back home or the young lady in Shiraz who has a clear crush on him are going to be disappointed by picture’s end. Schauder juggles the elements of the story deftly, even as late in the narrative the Green Movement begins to become a real force in Iranian society.
The film makes for a great introduction to the complex political scenario at work in the Gulf nation, one that never crosses the line into the didactic formula that makes many “issue” documentaries feel like educational film strips.