With the drumbeat of war coursing through American politics once again, a curious little documentary titled "The Iran Job" appears to provide a would-be path toward diplomacy.
By following Kevin Sheppard, an American basketball player, to Iran's Super League, we are exposed not only to Sheppard's own inimitable curiosity but also to an Iranian public that is bursting with love for America. Sheppard is black and extremely tall, two features which prompt endearingly earnest reactions from the locals ("I love black people!" shouts one bazaar shop owner).
But the film is more than a string of cute cross-cultural anecdotes. The documentary was shot in 2009, the year President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected amid mass suspicions of fraud. Protests spread throughout the country and were met with brutal force, particularly in Tehran. Sheppard, his now-close Iranian friends (including Elaheh, a charming woman who at one point seems to fall for the disarming basketballer) and the theater audience witness the birth of the Green Movement.
As the promise of the movie is a hopeful one, of reconciliation and human interconnectivity, it's a jarring context to relive the despairing crackdown on Iran's young, freedom-hungry citizens. But for all of the disheartening scenes -- including the murder of Neda Agha Soltan -- a certain sense of possibility remains with the audience member, as though no matter how horrible things might be, they needn't stay that way.
If the idea of a basketball movie offering a window into better Iran-U.S. relations seems too heavy, rest assured of two facts: The film is full of hilarious moments, and stranger things have happened (see: Ping Pong diplomacy).
HuffPost Entertainment spoke with husband-and-wife director-and-producer team of Till Schauder and Sara Nodjoumi about the film and its grander implications. Due to overwhelming demand and sold-out screenings, "The Iran Job" has been granted a second week run at Manhattan's IFC Center. Information on how you can support the movie's bid for a wider release is available at the conclusion of the following interview.
Did you know as soon as the Green Revolution started rumbling that you would include it in the film?
Schauder: Pretty much, it was a question of how we can weave it in. But when something that momentous happens you can't ignore it. It was more a question of how can we organically weave it in without having it take over the whole story.
How soon into the time that you got to Iran did you realize that the Green Movement was such a force?
Schauder: Oh when I first started I had no idea. I think nobody did, because I remember quite clearly having a conversation with the girls and Kevin about the system. And I remember that one of the girls pretty much predicted exactly what would happen. She said there would be an election, it will be rigged and nothing will change. She said that half-jokingly, and of course at that time no one could know that's exactly what would happen. People were conscious of the upcoming elections but I don't think anyone had any sort of anticipation as to what would happen. I think the whole atmosphere in the last month before the election was a surprise -- even to most Iranians.
When you came back to the States, was there anything about the way that Americans interpreted the events in Iran -- in a way that didn't match up to what you saw?
Schauder: One thing that struck me as odd was how different factions were trying to take advantage of what was going on, politically. People where pressuring the administration to take a stance very quickly. The other thing that struck me was how the Iranian, so-called "experts" who were interviewed on television. How little in-tune they were with what was actually going on with their countrymen on the ground. I was surprised at how some Iranians living in L.A. or on the West Coast or even here in New York would make judgments about what their countrymen should do, sitting smug in their apartments without having to go through it themselves.
And how long did you spend with Kevin before you decided he would be a good subject for your film?
Nodjoumi: [Laughing] I spent five minutes with him on Skype before Till decided to fly to meet him and start shooting.
Schauder: After those five minutes, we looked at each other and I decided to get a ticket and go there. And that's where this German passport came in very handy, because I could make that decision on the fly -- I didn't have to go through some lengthy process of getting even a tourist visa. You can just show up at the airport in Iran and get an express visa.
How long did you spend in his hometown before he flew to Iran?
Schauder: Actually I shot that out of sequence. There was no other way of doing it, because the way that the contracts work in Iran, it gives neither the player nor the team any lead time. In other words, Kevin gets a call and signs and is expected to be there 48 hours later. So what I did was to go to Iran and spend a lot of time with him there, very much regretting that I didn't get his departure from home. But then, via a stroke of luck, the team had a pretty extended break for Norooz [Persian New Year]. So during that break he went home, and I went with him. Then what happened is basically when he left after that break, the exact same emotions came up in him, [his girlfriend] and his family.
There seems to be a love interest between Kevin and one of the young women, especially about halfway through the film. Was this as apparent to you when you were putting the film together?
Schauder: There was definitely a little bit of flirtation, interest or temptation. Who wouldn't be, with a beautiful woman like that and an interesting man like that. What I found remarkable about it was that it never trespassed a certain boundary. Instead, if you will, they made love intellectually -- with an exchange of thoughts. It sort of reminded me of "Witness," when Harrison Ford goes into an Amish community and falls in love with a recently widowed Amish woman. It would be completely inappropriate for the two of them to have any romance, and that what makes the film interesting, because they really can't. In that film, they end up having the romance, but in our case they don't. And I think that's incredibly exciting to see, because you sort of want them to have it but you also don't, and they take it to a very deep place of friendship.
In a perfect world, what do you hope people take away from your film?
Nodjoumi: I think my takeaway is for people to just take a moment to learn about each other's complexities. This sort of whole, us-versus-them or black-white rhetoric that has been instilled in our politics… Luckily it's fading a little bit, but during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we really had no chance of understanding who we were going to bomb. I think if they do have a chance to understand a people of a country, at least there will be more of a conversation about what we will do rather than to just jump into war. And not just Iran -- Iran is our example, but really when it comes to any country or people, we should take a moment to understand them more before rushing to judgments.
Schauder: I think that during the Bush administration, after 9/11 was where this rhetoric was first introduced to us. I think that has deeper consequences than people actually realize. It's not like when Obama was voted in, the fear that was instilled in people would wash away. You still had fear of the other, of other religions, and in many cases it was more ingrained in people than they actually realized. It remains extremely important to demystify certain things. When you look at the way that people talk about Iran and our options vis-a-vis Iran, it is mostly dictated by fear. And the fear seems to be of information. One of the most striking things, when I went to Iran, was to find out just how much Iranians like us. If you take opinion polls there, you will find approval ratings in the 70 percent range. And so it's absolutely not understandable why these two countries shouldn't have really good relations -- not just normal, but very good relations. If you keep that sympathy away from the American public, while just feeding them the idea that these are just enraged Muslims that you can't reason with … it's so far away from the average Iranian and yet it dictates the way a lot of Western audiences view Iran.
"The Iran Job" is currently raising funds through Kickstarter in an attempt to finance a wider release. Ticket and showtime information is available here. More information is available at the film's website and Facebook page.
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