Okay, so not even FIBA considers Iran part of The Continent, but BallinEurope today would nevertheless like to pass on a recommendation of a great basketball movie to watch out for. Entitled The Iran Job, the documentary follows U.S. Virgin Islands player Kevin Sheppard, a self-described journeyman with tours in China, Brazil, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Argentina to his credit, as he embarks on a season in the mysterious Middle Eastern nation.
As it turns out, Sheppard’s in Iran for not just any season, but that slate of games set in 2008-09 – significant calendar years for both his native USA and his country of residence. And as it turns out, The Iran Job is no typical American fish-out-of-water basketball story.
Just the word “Iran” is a hot-button issue in the ‘States (and, apparently, its protectorates); knowing the concept behind the film, reading the title alone takes us one step into Sheppard’s world. Upon announcing his professional plans, his mother is scared. His girlfriend is shocked. And it’s all set against a pastiche of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” taunts and Hillary Clinton’s “we would destroy Iran” demagoguery.
On his part, Sheppard simply feels the need “to go to the unfamiliar,” while proclaiming he doesn’t believe in politics. It is said that great stories feature a hero taking a life-changing journey; The Iran Job details Sheppard’s.
The situation is familiar, harkening back to the 2009 Finnish film Täynnä tarmoa (“Basket Case”) or 2011’s Phoenix in der Asche (“No Phoenix, No Ashes”) featuring Michael-Hakim Jordan and Germany’s Phoenix Hagen: American guy signed to produce immediate results. In The Iran Job, Sheppard is to lead first-time Iranian Superleague club AS Shiraz into the playoffs. Shiraz’s second allowed foreign-born player is big man Zoran Majkic of Serbia, a quiet sort who, as Sheppard remarks early in the film, is a reminder that the U.S. military was not so long ago bombing his teammate’s country.
Sheppard’s mention of the Serbian conflict opens up that door for the player’s more important travel. Yes, he’s making it in a land of beerlessness, of gender segregation, a country where a doctor may patiently explain that this or that way of life “may be uncomfortable, but it’s Islamic” and where Christmas is nearly unknown. But the focus of The Iran Job slowly shifts to raise the film above the status of simple underdog story.
For amid the trials and tribulations of AS Shiraz, the world turns. Sheppard, Majkic and the guys attempt to play their way up the Superleague table in an eight-month span which sees the election of the first African-American president of the US and the 2009 vote in Iran which would trigger the Green Movement.
But don’t shy away at mention of the word “politics.” Director Till Schauder clearly understands that the human story is what matters. Through that sort of wonderful accident captured by the best documentary films, Sheppard and Majkic befriend three young women named Hilda, Laleh and Elaheh. Not only do the ladies provide succinct explanations for some of the stranger (at least to Westerners) bits of Iranian Islamic culture, these three often serve as the mouthpiece of a frustrated half of the country’s society. Sheppard sees parallels between the African-American’s struggles in the U.S. with those of these ladies, an emancipation which they believe they seek in vain.
Indeed, the ladies’ subplot nearly threatens to overwhelm the main storyline, but Schauder manages to bring us back to basketball action again and again in what is – and no spoilers here – an interesting enough bit of sports drama in the “plucky underdog” mold. Everything’s segued with some fantastic Farsi-language rap.
Sheppard says early on that he’s “here to do a job.” To what degree the Jacksonville University alum succeeds BiE won’t spoil, but that’s irrelevant. What The Iran Job teaches us is that we are more than our work; in any bit of America, Serbia or Iran can the broken-hearted be found, will the fans turn out to go verbally ballistic for the home team, where good friends can surmount cultural trappings.
People, proclaims The Iran Job succinctly and poetically, are people.
The lesson: Iranian domestic ball may not be on quite the level as European top leagues, but Iran itself may be closer than you think.
Through the production and post-production process, The Iran Job has received a fair bit of publicity. Stories on CNN, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and the Teheran News Bureau have highlighted not only the story itself, but the method in which funding was gotten, namely through the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter; ultimately some $100,000 was raised to get the film to screens.
The Iran Job ultimately debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and will begin a limited-release run in that city on September 28. No word yet on when/if the movie will come to Europe (surely Serbia must be on the docket), but BallinEurope together with heinnews will be interviewing Sheppard and Schauder later this week – we’ll ask. Until then, a few clips from the movie, interviews and such may be seen at The Iran Job official website.