Editor’s note: The Iran Job is open now in Los Angeles and screening on 30 September at Maysles’ Jock Docs series, followed by a Q&A with producer Sara Nodjoum. It opens at New York’s IFC Center on 12 October.
As a star point guard at Jacksonville University, Kevin Sheppard was looking at a bright future. Indeed, as he says at the start of The Iran Job, “I thought I had a great shot at making it to the NBA.” When that shot doesn’t pan out, he seeks work elsewhere, namely, playing for teams outside the US, for instance, in China, Brazil, and Israel. He makes a journeyman’s living, which is to say, his paycheck ranges from fine to uncertain. When, in 2008, he’s recruited by A.S. Shiraz, a team in Iran, he’s hesitant. “I’m nervous,” he says, “‘cause I want to get the hell over there and come back.” And so he goes, with a film crew to boot, and ends up with a far more complex and immense reward than he can imagine.
The Iran Job reveals Kevin’s changing perspective. When he lands in Shiraz, in Southwestern Iran, the camera shows murals denouncing America, a black-skeletal Statue of Liberty and “Down With the USA” in English. “The teams have to offer double the money,” Kevin observes, “because people are scared to play in Iran.”
Even apart from politics, there’s culture: Kevin and his new roommate, the seven-foot Zoran Milicic from Serbia, complain that they have to wait over a month for promised access to the internet (worse, when it comes, Kevin says, most of the channels are pornographic, which he doesn’t need to be watching in a tiny apartment with another dude). The team is feeble too: during an early practice, Kevin is so frustrated that he walks out (“This shit ain’t basketball”). When the coach prevails on him to commit to the near impossible project of making the playoffs, Kevin becomes in essence an assistant coach, helping players on and off the court.
This project takes up much of Kevin’s energy and focus, no doubt, and the film delivers a few too many game and practice montages. He remarks on the odd behavior of the fans: they’re segregated by gender (boys on one side of the court, girls on the other), and “For some reason, they’re a little bit more crazy” than American fans, singing and dancing, no matter the action on the court. “It’s like stress relief,” Kevin observes. Kevin endures his own stress, instructed not to speak to reporters and also suffering an ankle injury.
Here The Iran Job takes a turn, as Kevin heads to the doctor’s and meets Hilda, his physical therapist and first Iranian friend. In turn, she introduces him to Laleh and Elaheh, and soon the foursome, along with Z—all in their 20s—are spending evenings in the men’s apartment. This even though it’s illegal for women to visit men’s quarters, and so they risk arrest, imprisonment, and beating. As the women describe their frustrations to Kevin, he comes to see beyond the usual demonization of Iran to what his friends want to preserve and also to change. “Somewhere else I might gain some freedom,” Laleh explains, “I prefer to stay and try to change the situation here.”
Kevin undergoes his own changes, between missing Leah when he calls home and working with his erratic but increasingly determined teammates. He’s also becoming more aware—thanks to his friends and what little internet they manage—to see what’s happening in the Iranian streets, as the Green Movement is taking hold. He’s especially moved by the girls’ resolve, their broad and sophisticated perspectives and their focus on details. Driving with Elaheh, he’s impressed at her multi-tasking (determined to look up a word he’s just used, she pulls out phone’s dictionary and starts hitting keys, “texting, typing, driving,” all at the same time).
The film too provides an alternative view, most often thanks to Elaheh, who travels with the camera even without Kevin. “It is my dream to be a movie star,” she says, “But my father didn’t let me and I’m not a movie star now.” She smiles, a little sadly, contemplating a possible move to Tehran, which her father also forbids. When her phone rings, she translates for her companion, that it’s her mother, angry at her for being out late. “She says,” reports Elaheh, “‘You’re a bad girl.’”
The film here indicates the complications Elaheh and her friends face each day, their efforts to follow their parents’ edicts but also to explore the world around them, a world they can’t help but see and imagine now. At the basketball games, at work or on touristy excursions with Kevin and Z, the girls are enthusiastic and vibrant, thrilled by each new experience. The boys, in turn, come to recognize both their own privilege and deprivations in new lights: Z describes the effects of US bombing on his country, and Kevin compares black history in the US with what young people in Iran are going through. “I know what standing up for your rights is all about,” he says, “And I know it can lead to something.”
Where it may lead is not so clear, a point made when Kevin leaves Iran. He keeps in touch with his friends by skype, introducing them to Leah and promising to come back. The girls hover together in the computer frame, their faces shadowed. It’s a remarkable image, shot from over Kevin’s shoulder, hopeful and inspiring and also haunting.