One of the most important points a person can reach in their life is the realization that there is a world of importance outside of one’s own sphere of experience. Kevin Sheppard’s world has always been basketball and the contributions he can make to the sport. It wasn’t until he accepted an offer to play for an upstart professional team in Iran, however, that he realized what he does for a living is far bigger than the sport of basketball. His presence in the community can be just as vital as any time he spends on the court.
The new documentary The Iran Job from director Till Schauder follows Kevin’s first year in Iran from first deciding to make the trip to an unlikely playoff run. The film is part competition documentary, following Kevin’s team through their season game by game, and part social documentary with a focus on Iran’s corrupt government. Basketball serves as the perfect framing device for an investigation into the issues that lead to Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 and 2010 with surprisingly detailed insight into the Iranian sociopolitical climate.
The Iran Job is one of those rare documentaries whose real life narrative provides perfectly timed twists that organically increase the dramatic tension. Schauder finds a fascinating protagonist to anchor his story and lets that individual’s relationships with the Iranians he crosses paths with inform the audience about the mindset of the country. Kevin’s outgoing personality connects him to a wide array of colorful characters that give a human face to a national struggle and ultimately guide Kevin through his journey of realization that he is doing far more in Iran than just playing basketball. The most fascinating moments occur during Kevin’s time off the court, and Schauder recognizes this by devoting about 70% of the film’s running time to Kevin’s personal journey outside of basketball.
The film seems to be broken into chapters that evolve alongside Kevin’s personal journey. At first the film is almost a slapstick comedy with Kevin apparently brought in to teach a team of misfits how to play a professional sport. Iranian teams are allowed to bring in up to two foreign players (Kevin is joined by a Serbian player called “Z”) and the newest team to the Iranian Super League, A.S. Shiraz, hopes their new star will lead them to victory. At his first practice Kevin realizes how daunting this task is when he arrives to find a group of individuals who seem to have only learned about basketball by watching it on television (coached by an Iranian Bobby Knight look-alike). Kevin struggles with the language barrier, the different rules of etiquette, and a whole new style of play.
While visiting the team doctor, Kevin befriends a young nurse named Hilda and invites her to get together after work. Hilda comes to Kevin’s apartment with two friends, Elaheh and Laleh, despite Iranian law forbidding women to be in the homes of men they’re not married to, and a friendship develops between Kevin and the women. Through their conversations, Kevin learns of the frustrations that come with a lack of freedom and that Iranian women are not submissive like government policies attempt to suggest. When Kevin asks Laleh why she doesn’t leave Iran she responds with a thoughtful and eloquent justification for staying in a country where she can affect her own change. That one moment provides better dialogue than any of the fictional films that have explored similar themes and Schauder brilliantly juxtaposes the conversation with newsreel footage of a stirring protest.
It’s at about this point when Kevin and the film’s director realize that The Iran Job can be more than a documentary about a guy teaching people to play basketball and sloppily assimilating into another culture. Suddenly the players on A.S. Shiraz are not just a rag-tag group of misfits, but human beings with heartbreak, fears, and frustrations. Unlike other sports movies that try to use a game as a unifying force, The Iran Job acknowledges that basketball is a microcosm for the inequality in Iranian culture. The women are forced to sit on a different side of the stadium than men and the government chooses random games to ban female spectators altogether without notice. Kevin’s struggle to achieve victory for AS Shiraz becomes more than just a job, but a struggle to fight for his temporarily adopted country the only way he knows how.
Bottom Line: The Iran Job brilliantly uses basketball as a framing device to put a human perspective on the revolution in Iran.