Several things that happened in 1979 are key to the story of The Iran Job, an engrossing documentary directed by Till Schauder. Two are well-known: the Iranian Revolution that ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, and the Iranian seizure of 52 Americans who were held as hostages for over one year. The other is more of local importance, although key to Schauder’s film: Kevin Sheppard was born on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.
These events intersect in The Iran Job, which documents a season in the life of Kevin Sheppard, American citizen, playing professional basketball in Iran. It’s a remarkable story, particularly considering that the US still has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and an embargo prohibits Americans from engaging in economic activities in Iran. Politics are not central to Schauder’s film, however, and he leaves key questions unanswered (such as whether Sheppard faced any legal consequences as a result of violating the embargo) while using Sheppard’s season as a means to present what is for many a seldom-seen view of daily life in Iraq.
Sheppard’s personality is key to the film’s success: he comes off as a genuinely nice guy who is curious about other people and cultures and has a strong sense of justice moderated by common sense and tact. He’s no NBA superstar, but he did play at the University of Jacksonville before becoming a journeyman professional whose stops included teams based in Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, China, and Israel. His fiancé and mother are not delighted when he takes the job in Iran—to them it seems to be a dangerous place full of terrorists—but Sheppard approaches the country with an open mind and heart, which makes up for his lack of knowledge about the country and its national language, Farsi. His team is not very good and his fellow players are certainly no great shakes by American standards, but Sheppard shows great patience and a positive attitude while acting as an unofficial coach for a team whose goal is to finish at least 8th out of 13 teams in their league, and thus make the playoffs.
Basketball is popular in Shiraz, a city almost 600 miles from Tehran, although it’s not quite like playing in the United States. For one thing, men and women sit on opposite sides of the auditorium, except for a few days when women are inexplicably barred from attendance altogether. For another, the game itself doesn’t seem to be the main point for many of the spectators, who play drums, sing, dance, and engage in group cheers, but everyone is having such a good time that it doesn’t really matter.
Although The Iran Job is structured around a basketball season, the more interesting aspects of the film are Sheppard’s encounters with Iranian culture, and particularly his friendship with three remarkable women. While receiving physical therapy for an ankle injury, Sheppard meets the head nurse at the clinic, Hilda, and before you know it, she and two of her women friends, Laleh and Elaheh, have become regular visitors at his apartment.
They risk arrest just by being there (at one point Sheppard has to sneak them out the gate so they won’t be seen by the building guard) and further flaunt the law by removing their headscarves and coats in the presence of men who are not their relatives. Once they feel comfortable in the presence of the camera (and are assured that the film will be shown in America, not Iran), however, they open up about the frustrations of their lives and their desires to be free of gender-based restrictions.
A nice bonus in The Iran Job is the soundtrack made up largely of tracks from Iranian hip-hop artists, including Shahin Najafi, Jaduguaran, and ZedBazi, helps lend energy to the film while also exposing Western audiences to yet another side of Iran that seldom makes the news.
The DVD release of The Iran Job include several extras that complement the main film. A 2013 interview with Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi (Schauder’s wife) (19 min.) and a Q & A following a work-in-progress screening at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (34 min.) fill in some of the details about how Schauder found his subject, how the filming was accomplished (surreptitiously, and entirely by Schauder, who visited Iran on a tourist visa and did not have a permit to make the film), and the fates of the three women featured in the film (two have left the country, while the third is “under observation” by the government, underlining the risk they took in cooperating with this film).
A 1995 short film, “City Bomber”, by Schauder is also included on the disk. It’s a stylized thriller about an act of vengeance, and while it’s well made, it feels like work done to demonstrate filmmaking competence more than something you would choose to watch for its own sake.