An engaging documentary about an American basketball player in Iran, "The Iran Job" finds a new way to explore cultural differences and explode stereotypes
At a time when "Innocence of Muslims" has inflamed tensions between Americans and the Muslim world and made Hollywood a scapegoat for cultural insensitivity, a far better film, the documentary "The Iran Job," has a big task on its hands.
The film, German director Till Schauder's surprisingly funny and moving look at an American basketball player spending a year on a team in Iran, also deals with cultural misunderstandings, with stereotypes and East-West tensions.
But "The Iran Job," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, ends up being about common ground, not division.
With the charismatic and engaging Kevin Sheppard at its center, the film shows an American not only being the best and most popular player on an Iranian team, but also presents a nuanced look at Iranian people who don't fit any western preconceptions.
That includes three young women who become friends with Sheppard, despite the cultural restrictions that meant that their conversations with him about politics, religion and gender inequality had to be clandestine.
In fact, those conversations — which often took place late at night in the apartment Schauder shared with his Serbian roomate, Zoran Majkic — are one reason why the film can't legally be shown in the country where it was shot, according to Schauder.
"There is no real possibility to show it in Iran, for the simple fact that the women do things that are not permissible in state media," he told TheWrap. "Just appearing in a stranger's apartment, and by stranger I mean somebody who's not your husband or related to you, is not permissible. Appearing without a head cover is not permissible. There is a monent where one of them takes a swig of a drink, which his not permissible."
In fact, Schauder said that once he'd prepared an edit of the film, he felt compelled to get the approval of the three women, the team's physiotherapist and two of her friends.
"It became very important to show them the film, and I was ready for them to say, 'You need to cut me out of it,'" he said. "But surprisingly, they all had a very emotional reaction to it. One of them, who had already relocated to a different country, said, 'I probably can't go back to Iran, but I still want you to release the film because I'm proud of what I did.'"
If the three women are the film's most surprising characters, Sheppard is its central figure — and the reason "The Iran Job" is as thoroughly entertaining as it is. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who played college basketball at Jacksonville University, he was the key to a film that began when Schauder hit upon a story he wanted to tell before he had the characters to tell that story.
"I'm used to writing scripts and creating my own stories," said the director, who had never before made a documentary. "Here I had the idea of an American going into the lion's den, so to speak, and that I thought was an interesting idea.
"But you can't make a film without a hero, so I was hoping that among the Americans who were doing this I would find somebody who was charismatic enough to carry a feature film."
The first few players he tried didn't work, said Schauder (left). "They didn't have that special extra that a character needs. That curiosity, the willingness to dive into the circumstance." His wife and producer, who had been in touch with the AS Shiraz team in the Iranian Super League, came across Sheppard – who was, Schauder says, their last hope.
"We said, 'We're gonna try it one more time, and if it doesn't work out with this guy we're gonna stop,'" he said.
This time, it worked. "Kevin is a really funny guy, and it's great to have that ability to make people laugh when you're making a film about a country that creates associations that aren't positive. It was important to have a character like that, and also one who would engage with people and pull interesting people into the film."
He laughed. "I didn't even know how good a player he was. He could have sucked."
"I'm very good," added Sheppard with a grin. "He doesn't want to say it."
Sheppard, who had already spent one year playing for Shiraz, said he wasn't sold on the idea initially.
"First off I was like, 'Man, are you crazy?'" he said. "I watched all these reality shows of people being followed around by cameras, and I thought, I'm not ready for that. I can perform on a basketball court in front of 5,000 people, but my personal life is a little more sacred.
"But something popped in my head: My friends back home have all these preconceptions about Iran. They would laugh and say to me, 'Did you ride a camel to the gym?' And I thought, well, maybe this would be a good way to show them how I live."
His own preconceptions, he added, had been shattered when he first went to play in Iran the previous year. "We have this perception that the Iranian people hate Americans," he said. "You see these signs that say 'Down with America,' but once I got in touch with the people, they were more into the American culture than I was. They knew everything about America, they loved the lifestyle, they loved Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, they had the shoes.
"It was really ironic that they have all these things surrounding them that say 'Down with America,' and yet the people have a different feeling. We're hearing about weapons of mass destruction, but we're not hearing anything about what the people are really doing."
Sheppard played for two more years in Iran after the season documented in "The iran Job," and now coaches a high school team in the Virgin Islands and runs a nonprofit organization for troubled kids, the Choices Basketball Association.
"Even though we are a so-called American paradise, there is nothing really paradise about it right now," he said. "Too many young men are dropping out of school – and with the economy what it is right now, there's only one other avenue they can go to, and it's crime. I'm trying to do whatever I can to stop that."
"I would always ask Kevin, 'Do you feel safe here in Iran?'" added Schauder. "And he would say, 'I feel safer here than I feel in my own counry, because they all have guns. I thought that was an interesting contrast."
After raising more than $100,000 with its initial Kickstarter campaign, "The Iran Job" has launched a second campaign to help fund theatrical distribution beyond Los Angeles and New York runs that which will qualify the film for Oscar consideration.
As for people in Iran finally seeing the movie, Schauder is cautiously optimistic.
"I'm an optimist, so I hope that conditions will change and somebody there will find an excuse to show the film, perhaps in a film festival or something," he said. "And I am pretty sure that the film in some fashion will find its way there on a bootleg DVD, as it always does in Iran.
"Also, with the online distribution that we will have here in the West, they will try blocking it and everything, but I have a sense that it will be seen somehow."