Dir: Till Schauder. Germany-Iran-US. 2012. 93mins

The Iran Job

The Iran Job follows an African-American who can’t make the NBA, but ends up heading a motley professional team in Shiraz, Iran. Missteps on his improbable journey into the Axis of Evil offer some laughs, and even some wisdom.

The Iran Job skirts some basic questions, like why basketball, imported from imperialist nations, has flourished in the Islamic state.

This lively documentary breaks no new ground cinematically, yet its mix of discovery and befuddlement should bring more than sports fans to a basketball story. The Iran Job will be a novelty at festivals and theatrically, but its largest public will be on sports cable. Basketball is now a global sport, and the film can exploit the NBA’s vast exposure in Europe and Asia. It is sure to be pirated widely in Iran.

What it won’t do is revive the basketball career of Kevin Sheppard, although he shows acting potential.

In Sheppard, the filmmakers found a character whose personality takes him beyond the sports template in this tale of a journeyman player’s “hoop dreams” gone awry. Gregarious, overbearing and photogenic, Sheppard is also thoughtful, making his first-person account of misadventures in Iran an unexpected delight.   

German-American director Till Schauder follows the young man who called his host country “eye-RANN” into unknown territory, the southeastern city of Shiraz. The film lacks the polish of higher budget sports docs, yet it captures beguiling details that couldn’t be farther from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Sheppard’s home. And it conveys Iran’s brief 2009 electoral optimism, when candidates criticised the Iranian government openly, only to lose in a disputed vote, as police bludgeoned protesters in the streets.

In a parallel course, Schauder tracks Kevin inspiring the proverbial team that couldn’t shoot straight, taking them to a shot at the country’s championship. A seven-foot Serbian teammate adds comedy to the cartoonish ensemble. The seductive groove of Iranian rap music during game sequences (Shahin Najafi, Jaduguaran, ZedBazi) stresses the pull of US hip-hop culture on Iranian youth.

Love and politics take Schauder’s film beyond the obvious. The plot transcends a predictable fish-out-of-water travelogue when Kevin (with a girlfriend at home) meets glamorous Elaheh, who dreams of being an actress, with a more achievable (yet discreet) ambition of marrying a foreign basketball player.

His immersion in Iranian society deepens as he meets her family (bewildered by his table manners) and hears her and her friends’ frustrations as women in a theocracy.  “We don’t have any fun to do here,” he’s told. (Malapropisms ensure that Kevin isn’t the only one whom the audience laughs at.) Elaheh also makes the doc watchable, with an ideal face for close-ups and dark playful eyes that enliven reaction shots that any director would envy. You’re still wondering, when their scarves are off, why she and her friends wear their hair in Sarah Palin uplifts.

As Kevin and the doc stumble into Iranian politics, The Iran Job jolts from bumpy hand-held team conversations on the street or on the bus to television clips of Iranian officials trumpeting campaign rhetoric in the 2009 elections.

Politics careens into basketball’s realm (the team locks hands and shout “Praise Ali” before players hit the court) as decrees from on high prohibit and then permit women to attend the games – a vein of gender politics explored more deeply by Jafar Panahi in his football feature Offside.

The Iran Job skirts some basic questions, like why basketball, imported from imperialist nations, has flourished in the Islamic state. Spooning out basic information, presumably for a US audience that gets its news about Iran in soundbite denunciations, Schauder (filming on a German passport) convinces you that Sheppard fared better refining his sport in Iran with a losing team than his friends did broadening freedom of expression.  

Production companies: Fork Films, Partner Pictures, Post Republic

US Distributor: Paladin

International sales: Partner Pictures, http://partnerpictures.com/

Producers: Sara Nodjoumi, Till Schauder

Executive producer: Abigail Disney

Co-producers: Michael Reuter, Rebekka Garrido

Associate Producers: Karen Santiago, Josh Levin, Julien Segui, Chris Valentien

Cinematography: Till Schauder

Editor: David Teague

Music: Kareem Roustom