LA Film Festival: ‘Iran Job’ is sports as an ambassador

With the London Olympics just around the corner, (27 July – 12 August), there will be a lot of talk of sports as an ambassador for countries. Yet the Olympics are an intense few weeks of high pressure athletics. To truly know people, you have to live with them. The documentary “The Iran Job” looks at a journeyman basketball player, Kevin Sheppard, who is recruited for a basketball team in Shiraz, Iran.

You might be thinking: “There’s basketball in Iran?”

According to the movie, the teams are only allowed two foreign players. Currently the A.S. Shiraz have an American (Bobby St. Preux) and a Slovenian (Sasa Zagorac) playing for them.  When the documentary was filmed during Kevin Sheppard’s 2008-2009 season, it was Sheppard and an Eastern European player Zoran “Z” Milicic.

Sheppard was born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and at 6-foot, he’s not tall enough for most NBA times. At Jacksonville University in Florida, he played both soccer and basketball. From there, failing to be drafted by the NBA, he began playing abroad–in Venezuela, Israel, Argentina, Puerto Rico and then in Iran.

We hear from his family and his girlfriend, Leah, who don’t think the big salary is worth the big risks. Of course, when Sheppard decided to go, relations with Iran weren’t doing well. Director/cinematographer Till Schauder and his wife producer wife Sara Nodjoumi remind us of the way it was with news clips. Then President George W. Bush had called the country “Axis of Evil.”  Then Senator Hilary Clinton commented that if we have to we will bomb Iran.

Sheppard takes the risk and goes. In Iran, he’s rooms with the other foreign team member, “Z.” They learn things don’t move quickly in Iran. They request Internet connectivity only to be  told tomorrow, again and again. They have satellite TV, but it is predominately sex channels. As Sheppard notes, that’s not something two guys want to watch together.

Sheppard is made team captain of this young team with the hope that he can teach the Iranian players and take them to the playoffs, unheard of for a team in their first year in the super league.

The Iranian players are raw talent  and we see clips of him teaching the tricks of the trade to his teammates. This can an American polish up diamonds in the rough and make them winners seems like cliche sports story even though this is fact and not fiction. What gives this documentary depth is the socio-political situation.

Sheppard doesn’t speak Farsi, but as a journeyman he knows how to make friends fast, even without being able to communicate and he doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to learn Farsi or the local customs.  He does makes friends with three women: basketball fans Elaheh and Laleh and a woman who works in the physical therapy office. Through them we see the social pressures of being a woman, from how they can dress in public with women floating around like dark messengers of death to what they can wear on camera or in private.

During the year, Sheppard celebrates Christmas and becomes a minor celebrity as the team progresses through the season and to be sure we don’t get lost, there are graphic sequences to explain the teams progression after each game.

Although we learn that Kevin played in Iran for two more seasons, the documentary stops before things really heat up. The Green Movement protests demanded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leave office after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. During those protests, a woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was killed, something witnessed on a video that garnered national attention.

At the end of the movie, we are reminded of the protests after the 2009 elections and the similar protests that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya.  We learn what happened to the three women, although not in detail. One wishes we could have heard about them, particularly Laleh who was earning a master’s degree in Internet technology who had been arrested several times. Hilda continued working at the physical therapy office, but Elaheh rejected all marriage proposals and moved to another city to live by herself.

Kevin Sheppard retired in 2011, but he mentions what he learned from those three women and how it changed his relationship with his girlfriend, Leah. They are married and have a daughter.

One wonders what Sheppard saw in those tense times his last two seasons and how his Iranian teammates felt about him in the end and where is Z. This isn’t as deep at the fictional “A Separation” or “This Is Not a Film.”

“A Separation” is about a couple separating because the wife wishes to leave Iran to give their only child, a daughter, a better future and similarly raises the issues the oppression of women. “This Is Not a Film” looks at the artistic freedom of a filmmaker under house arrest.

Sheppard is engaging enough and his upbeat attitude as well as his compassion for his female friends in Iran is touching. “The Iran Job” allows us to see another facet of Iran in a pleasant but thought-provoking package.

Sunday, June 24 at 3:30 PM 

Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE

Q&A with director Till Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi after screening

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