Opening in very limited released today, The Iran Job is an intriguing look inside what Americans see as a buttoned-up and forbidding culture: life in Iran.
Indeed, even as filmmaker Till Schauder follows American basketball player Kevin Sheppard playing professional basketball for the Shiraz team, a newcomer to the Iran Super League in 2008, back in the USA then-President Bush continues to rattle sabres. Iran's future is the topic of debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
But that world seems far, far away to Sheppard, who shares a small apartment in dusty, remote Shiraz, when he's not working out with or traveling with his team. Aside from the fact that he can rarely get alcohol to drink, he doesn't seem to get just how restrictive this society can be.
He gets a taste early on when, in anger, he kicks a trash barrel at the side of the court. Kids' stuff in the NBA (in which Sheppard never got a chance to play), but a serious breach of decorum in Iran's Super League. Kevin has to apologize to hang on to his playing status.
A native of the American Virgin Islands, Sheppard played college ball at Jacksonville University in Florida but didn't make the NBA. When pro teams from other countries came calling, he listened and became a journeyman player, suiting up in South America, Europe and China - even Israel - before taking a contract with A.S. Shiraz in Iran's Super League.
He and his roommate, a Croatian whose consonant-laden name Sheppard shortens to Z, have been imported to turn around Shiraz's fortunes. The team is in the Super League for the first time and the team's new owner wants a trip to the playoffs during this maiden season.
As a character, Sheppard is easy-going, sometimes witty, sometimes naïve. When he and Z become friendly with a trio of unmarried and outspoken young Iranian women, they don't understand how much of a risk these women run just by getting into a car with the players - let alone visiting their apartments.
His lack of political sophistication is at times alarming, but his human skills -- teaching his roommates how to play better and patiently working with them in practice -- make up for it. Even as he's trying to bring about a miracle of sorts for A.S. Shiraz, the country outside is rising up in 2009 to try to dump Ahmedinejad, in a move that presages the Arab Spring of 2010.
There are exciting moments and humorous ones -- including a witty sequence in which Kevin teaches his bewildered teammates to say, "Let's get a W," though they have no clue what a double-you is.
The Iran Job doesn't break any major barriers; it's more entertaining than it is revealing, but that's not something to ignore. If you invest in Kevin Sheppard's story, it will pay off.
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