A standout basketball player from 2000 - 2003 at Florida's Jacksonville University, Kevin Sheppard approached the end of his college playing days with the same hopes and dreams of many other collegiate star basketball players - playing in the NBA.
Unfortunately, the NBA never came calling.
Instead, Sheppard became one of a growing number of American basketball players to find success overseas playing in South America, Europe, China, and Israel.
Then, the almost unthinkable happened.
Just in time for the 2008 - 2009 season, Sheppard was offered and accepted a job to play in one of the world's most feared countries, at least feared by Americans - Iran. Signed by A.S. Shiraz team owner Gholam Reza Khajeh with the singular vision of taking the team to the playoffs in its first year in the Iranian Super League, Sheppard sets off on his mission almost immediately dismayed by the team that surrounds him and expecting the worst out of his experience in Iran.
Instead, Sheppard discovers a country rich in hospitality, surprisingly open and accepting, and possessing of a sensuality that one might never expect. The charismatic Sheppard, who seems more than a little traumatized by the country's gender separation, forms an unlikely friendship with three outspoken Iranian women who become increasingly open about their opinions on everything from politics to religion to gender roles.
Directed by German-American filmmaker Till Schauder, who was actually banned from Iran towards the end of filming and had to have associates in Iran wrap up filming, The Iran Job is that rare sports documentary that doesn't feel like it constantly has an agenda.
The Iran Job is definitely part sports documentary.
The Iran Job is also part social commentary.
Finally, The Iran Job is also very much a cultural journey both intimate and universal. What may feel like a lack of focus to some is, in fact, a huge part of what makes The Iran Job such an effective documentary because the life of the film blossoms along with the life of the basketball player whom it centrally portrays.
The Iran Job had its world premiere in 2012 at the Los Angeles Film Festival and has proven to be a popular and inspirational film on the film festival circuit before being picked up by Film Movement for its DVD release on March 4th, 2014. Co-produced by Schauder and his Iranian wife Sara Nodjoumi and executive produced by Abigail Disney, The Iran Job is perhaps most effective because Schauder seems to instinctively pick up on the idea that the film is about far more than basketball even if basketball serves as its centerpiece. It likely helps, of course, to have such a delightful central figure as Kevin Sheppard, whom I might even dare call the anti-Rodman, not because I've been particularly bothered by Dennis Rodman's North Korean exploits but because Sheppard is so intelligent and perceptive that he seems to understand even the unspoken cultural and political issues. While Rodman speaks to being a sort of cultural bridge, Sheppard has actually gone out and lived it and he did so at the height of tension in the nation when President Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a vote that many questioned and Iran's reformist Green Movement was squelched, or at least squelched until the next election came around.
Sheppard's likability is constantly disarming as he possesses a refreshing honesty and curiosity that seems to relax those around him, though the film also shows the precarious nature of playing in a foreign country in one early season episode where Sheppard's anger gets the best of him and his kicking of a basket during a game is caught on video and instantly becomes the kind of national news that one tries to avoid in the notoriously disciplined nation.
While the basketball angle in The Iran Job is constantly entertaining and inspiring, the film's truly profound moments arise out of Kevin's befriending a physiotherapist named Hilda. In their first meeting, Hilda's entire being seems to light up in the most chaste of ways, and when she's invited by Kevin to visit him at the home he shares with Serbian basketball player Zoran Majkic she rather surprisingly does so and brings two similarly informed and progressive friends, Laleh and Elaheh. This friendship, which often feels like a warm cultural exchange, was forbidden in Iran as women are not allowed to be in the homes of men to whom they are not married. This friendship is also the source of much of the film's emotional resonance and vibrant spirit and it is interesting to watch Kevin's body language as he grows to care about these women and is concerned about their fate once he leaves.
To be honest, I find myself wondering about them even now.
As Kevin integrates this friendship and everything it means into his life, it seems like Schauder allows the film to ever so gently shift towards a wider lens. While Kevin has always taken his responsibilities for A.S. Shiraz seriously, his demeanor and focus changes and he becomes an even more committed player, confidante, and human being. He becomes even more determined to help his team achieve its goals and, in whatever ways he possibly can, he becomes determined to subtly give voice to those around him.
The Iran Job paints a realistic portrait of the society in which Kevin Sheppard finds himself, a society that is seemingly both open and accepting and joy-filled yet also challenged by the basic human desires for freedom, dignity, and expression. The film paints this portrait without, for the most part, taking sides in the issue but instead by living vicariously through one man's seemingly simple experiences that are ultimately far more complex. Schauder brings to life the joys and sorrows and challenges and triumphs, but most poignantly finds a way to celebrate the diverse world that we live in and the precious and wondrous human spirits who make it worth living in.
The Iran Job includes both English and Farsi w/English subtitles and the DVD packaging also includes Schauder's award-winning short film City Bomber, a film that also adds an even deeper layer of meaning to everything that has just unfolded.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic