Kevin Sheppard and friends at Persepolis in THE IRAN JOB

Directed by Till Schauder
Produced by Sara Nodjoumi & Schauder
Released by Partner Pictures
USA/Germany/Iran. 93 min. Not rated

Despite being a documentary about an American basketball player who goes overseas to play for a down-and-out Iranian team, the final images of The Iran Job are of Iranian women. Kevin Sheppard, a basketball player from the U.S. Virgin Islands, played college ball but didn’t make the NBA. Instead of giving up the game, he decides to become what he refers to as a “journeyman,” someone who travels to other countries to play basketball for foreign teams. After finding out he will play for a team in Iran, both Kevin and his girlfriend are wary, but he decides to take the plunge. The film follows his first season playing for A.S. Shiraz in Southwestern Iran. (Kevin’s first season coincides with the 2008 election in the U.S. and Iran’s 2009 election.) What elevates this documentary is its examination of recent Iranian history through the eyes of Kevin, his young teammates, and, most significantly, three Iranian women he befriends.

What struck me initially about The Iran Job is how popular basketball is in Iran. At first, it seemed odd that an Iranian team would want an American player so badly, but the film quickly shows how well-liked the sport is in the country. Kevin’s hired to help the new team make it to the playoffs in the Iranian Super League, and he rooms with another foreign player, Zoran, from Serbia, who Kevin nicknames Z. There is a lot of pressure on Kevin and Z to make sure their team improves, or they risk being fired.

The story of the underdog team trying to make it to the playoffs is involving in itself, but it makes for an amazing setting for Kevin’s (and the audiences’) experience of contemporary Iran. Charming and blunt, he makes an impression on his teammates, as well as locals, particularly a restaurant worker who starts dancing every time he sees Kevin. During his visits to a physical therapist, Kevin befriends one of the nurses and begins hanging out with her and her two girlfriends. Despite the risk these women take in spending time alone with a man, and a foreigner no less, they are extremely outspoken about their feelings on women’s rights in their country. As a foreigner, Kevin’s presence gives all three the liberty to express their intense dislike for their situation in Iran. Their friendship is the heart of the film, and it’s a highlight to watch how such an unlikely group can articulate so many ideas about the state of politics, religion, and gender roles.

Iran comes to life as German-born director Schauder shoots both on the court and in the streets of Shiraz. The Iran Job also uses a variety of Iranian rap and hip-hop artists in the soundtrack. The music connects to the youthful feel of the film as it focuses on the 20-something generation. It’s worth noting the film was one of the most successfully funded projects on the website Kickstarter, where anyone can contribute money for the completion of different artistic ventures. This moving film depicts large political ideas through an entertaining lens, and it’s easy to see why so many donated to this project.