Judge Jason Panella might just settle on being in the Mediocre League.
The story of an American basketball player in Iran.
How's this for a cross-cultural stew: a German-born filmmaker films an American basketball player signed to an Iranian team. While this alone is interesting enough, The Iran Job works especially well because it is, at heart, an underdog story featuring a charismatic lead.
After graduating from Jacksonville University in Florida, Virgin Islands native Kevin Sheppard narrowly missed getting into the NBA. So he decided to use his talents in another way: by playing on the international scene. After several stints around the globe, Sheppard signs a contract in 2008 to play for A.S. Shiraz, a new team on the Iranian Super League. (Super League!) So much to the consternation of Sheppard's girlfriend and family, Sheppard heads off to one of the last places an American would want to be in 2008.
At this point, director Tell Schauder (Santa Smokes) could have inserted some political commentary, or he could have let talking heads dictate the course of the documentary. He wisely doesn't. Schauder keeps quiet and follows Sheppard as the athlete moves to the Iranian city of Shiraz and settles into his training routine with his team. Iranian teams often have enough money to hire one or two "big" foreign players, the hope being to give the team enough of an edge to make it to the Super League playoffs (Super League is such a great name, isn't it?). Because of his experience, Sheppard is made captain of the team. So Sheppard, along with his giant Serbian roommate Milan Vucicevic (who is one of the best things about this movie), is quickly tasked with whipping the scrubs into championship material.
Schauder moves between action on the court and Sheppard's exploits around Iran. We see graffiti and signs in the city that proclaim the evils of the West. We also see severe cultural mandates—like women being barred from basketball games—that run counter to anything Sheppard is used to. But we also see Sheppard interacting with his teammates, coaches, landlords, people on the street—almost all of the Iranians Sheppard meets are warm, quick to laugh, and fantastic conversationalists who speak English a whole lot better than Sheppard speaks Farsi. Sheppard's experience in Iran is fascinating. What he sees is both at odds with the popular American stereotypes of the country, while also simultaneously reinforcing some major concerns.
It helps that Sheppard (for the most part) is willing to ask questions and listen, which is where the film really digs into Iran's culture. He and Vucicevic befriend three Iranian women who are keen to discuss the current state of Iran with outsiders. Elaheh, Laleh, and Hilda (surnames not given, for good reason) end up stealing the movie. They're all die-hard basketball fans (Iranians really like basketball, which becomes clear almost immediately), which acts as the initial connection between them. A solid friendship grows between the five, though, and some of the best moments in the film involve them chatting about their beliefs. Elaheh especially goes out of her way to be hospitable to Kevin and help him understand Iran from an insider's perspective. The timing for all of this is perfect, too: the Arab Spring is on the horizon, and Schauder ties it all together nicely.
Sheppard is pretty good about soaking it all up, but sometimes he lets his true-blue Americanism get the best of him. There's an amazing scene of him enlisting the help of his Afghan landlord to locate a Christmas tree. It's equally frustrating and hilarious, especially when you realize Sheppard isn't saying what he thinks he's saying.
I loved all of these scenes, but The Iran Job still revolves around basketball. The scenes on the court are riveting, including some absolute white-knuckle, do-or-die moments that had me jumping off of the couch. This is saying something, too, since I'm not exactly what you'd call a sports fan.
Film Movement's release of The Iran Job is quite good. The 1.78:1 standard definition widescreen transfer holds its own quite well (Schauder's camerawork is excellent), and the two audio tracks—Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround—are clear and precise. This is especially good because of the awesome Iranian rap soundtrack (and I really mean awesome). There are no optional subtitles, though—Farsi and accented English are subtitled, but a few spots—mostly on the court—could have benefited from subtitles. For extras, we get Schauder's 1995 short film debut City Bomber (21:30), an interview with Schauder and wife, producer Sara Nodjoumi (19:26), a Q&A after a work-in-progress screening for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (34:34), some cast & crew bios, and trailers for the film and other Film Movement releases.
The Iran Job is an exciting sports film. It's also a thoughtful look at the people of Iran and the common grounds they share with the West, especially in light of the fearful reputation Iran has. But I think what makes The Iran Job such a good film is that it ties these two elements together in a way that's utterly captivating.
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