The premise of “The Iran Job” sounds like a nutty idea for a sitcom: An African-American basketball player – a big, bluff, cheerful guy with a bit of a philosophical streak – goes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, not really knowing anything about the place except that it’s universally vilified by outsiders and that his family fears for his life. Throw in a trio of feisty and undeniably attractive Iranian women, who whip off the coats and headscarves as soon as they’re indoors, revealing themselves as severe fashion victims and eager consumers of smuggled cans of Tuborg beer. Not funny enough yet? How about a laconic, seven-foot-tall Serbian roommate, a building super from Afghanistan who speaks not a single word of English and a fast-food employee who prides himself on his elaborate imitations of African-American dance moves. Oh, and an attempt to find a Christmas tree in the provincial Iranian city of Shiraz, complicated by the fact that the Farsi word for “raisin” apparently sounds a lot like “Christmas.”
There’s even romantic confusion in “The Iran Job” — which despite its implausibility is a documentary that’s 100 percent true — and it ends up being more wistful and even tragic than hilarious. Kevin Sheppard, a onetime star at Jacksonville University turned international basketball gypsy, is either not cognizant (or, more likely, willfully ignorant) of the way Elaheh, the cutest, most dolled-up and most English-proficient of the Iranian troika, looks at him. Yes, it’s true that Sheppard has a girlfriend back home in the Virgin Islands, but as Elaheh and her pals observe rather pointedly, Skype is no replacement for the real thing. It’s one thing for these young women to hang out in the apartment Sheppard and his roomie Zoran Milicic share, a mini-oasis of Westernism in Shiraz. But when Elaheh — who conspicuously dreams of a bigger life somewhere else — invites Kevin to her family home to have dinner with her parents, he seems unaware of the significance such an evening might possess in a tradition-minded Islamic culture. (Don’t get me wrong: Sheppard’s loyalty to the lovely, no-nonsense Leah back in St. Croix is completely charming. If he’s ever tempted by this fork in the road of his life, he never admits it to the camera.)
Kevin Sheppard belongs to the class of American basketball players who aren’t quite good enough to crack the NBA but are more than good enough to be stars in overseas leagues. He had already played professionally in Venezuela, Israel and Argentina before landing in Iran in 2007 – and I bet those would have made terrific movies, too. (How many people who aren’t spies or globetrotting journalists have actually lived in both Israel and post-revolutionary Iran?) In “The Iran Job,” German-American filmmaker Till Schauder follows Sheppard’s 2008–2009 season with A.S. Shiraz, a startup team that was competing in Iran’s top-level Super League for the first time. As Sheppard explains, he’s being paid more than anyone else on the team, and he is expected to lead these no-hopers, who play in a glorified high-school gym, to the playoffs. If he fails, he won’t be invited back.
In fact, the story of A.S. Shiraz’s underdog odyssey is both strange and rousing, and beneath his easygoing, big-dog demeanor, Sheppard turns out to be a wonderfully complicated character with an introspective nature and genuine leadership qualities. But his struggle to adjust to life and basketball in Iran that season happened to coincide with larger events: the election of America’s first black president back home, along with the tumultuous 2009 Iranian presidential election that sparked the so-called Green Revolution and lit the fires of the Arab Spring. One of the many wonderful things about Schauder’s movie is that it manages to capture a little of that energy in miniature, and also provides an inside view of the paradoxical character of life in Iran, where the official anti-American ideology contrasts with the enthusiastic welcome Sheppard receives almost everywhere he goes. (One shopkeeper in Shiraz, a gray-haired man of 60 or so, reminisces with Sheppard about his memories of America, which seem to involve smoking marijuana in Nashville.)
As you can tell from the chronology involved, it took Schauder several years to complete “The Iran Job.” In fact, this is one of the most inspiring examples of a Kickstarter-funded project; abetted by media coverage on CNN and PBS and in the Washington Post, Schauder raised more than $100,000, allowing him to finish the film in time for this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. If you’re a film buff who’s been following movies made in or around Iran in recent years, then “The Iran Job” makes a lovely, offhand companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” Iranian exile Maryam Keshavarz’s steamy lesbian drama “Circumstance” and persecuted Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s autobiographical “This Is Not a Film.” Even better, this is a complicated, accessible and heartfelt human drama, one that Obama, Romney and Americans of all political stripes should see to remind themselves that real people’s lives — complete with basketball games, Christmas trees and smuggled beer — lie behind the overheated war talk on Iran.
“The Iran Job” is now playing in Los Angeles and opens this week at the IFC Center in New York, with more cities and home video to follow.