‘The Iran Job,” a lively, engaging documentary directed by the German filmmaker Till Schauder, has two things going for it. One is a pretty irresistible premise: an American playing point guard for an Iranian professional basketball team. There are fish out of water – and then there’s Kevin Sheppard. Sheppard, the point guard, is the other thing going for it. He has an exuberant personality, curious mind, and engaging manner. If Michael Strahan ever leaves his morning gig with Kelly Ripa, Sheppard could step right in.
Twenty-nine at the start of the 2008-2009 season, Sheppard had spent much of his 20s as a hoop vagabond, playing in China, Brazil, Israel. “My first response when I heard about Iran was ‘Hell, no!’ ” he says. It’s not as if he has many other options, though. So Sheppard leaves behind his girlfriend in the US Virgin Islands (they stay in touch by Skype) and heads to Shiraz (like the wine), a city of almost 1.5 million in southwestern Iran. “God put something into my spirit,” Sheppard declares, “and said, ‘You need to go from the familiar and get into the unfamiliar.’”
Unfamiliarity is the order of the day. During games, men and women sit on different sides of the arena. It’s close to a brief national incident when Sheppard kicks a trash can in frustration during a game. Sheppard comes up with a novel way to overcome the passivity of his Iranian teammates. “I make up crazy slang in practice just to get them hyped.” Trying to explain what a Christmas tree is, let alone finding one, is a major challenge. Whenever three Iranian women Sheppard befriends come to visit the apartment he shares with Zoran, his Serbian teammate, they have to arrive and leave surreptitiously.
Sheppard meets the women because one of them, Hilda, works at the physical therapy office the team uses. She and her friends Elaheh and Laleh assume significant roles in the documentary. They talk about their frustration with the circumscribed lives women are forced to lead in Iran today.
Sheppard’s time in Shiraz largely coincides with Barack Obama’s election, the campaign leading up to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, and the violent protests that followed. Schauder frequently crosscuts to news footage of political events. This gets a bit heavy-handed at times. “The Iran Job” is three movies really: a star turn for Sheppard, a slice-of-life view of contemporary Iran, and a CNN special report. The last is easily the weakest of the three. “I try to stay away from politics as far as possible,” Sheppard says. “Politics is a very dangerous game.” That’s no less true for filmmakers than it is for basketball players.
Basketball can be a dangerous game, too. Some of the Iranian fans are brutal. If less politics would be welcome in “The Iran Job,” so would more basketball. The game is what’s brought together Sheppard and the Iranians, both on and off the court. Basketball is a bond they all share. It doesn’t take long before a viewer starts wondering, what’s Farsi for “hoop dreams”?Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.