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Spotlight | 'The Iran Job': He Got Game, Shiraz-Style


06 Jan 2012 23:00Comments

Documentary on American basketball player in Iran nears completion.

[ film ] Seconds remain to the final whistle. As the tall, dark American player stands ready to take the free throw that will decide the fate of the basketball game, you can hear the crowd quiet down as if they're in the Colosseum about to witness the final blow of a gladiator's sword. He takes a deep breath, aims, and shoots. Even before the ball falls through the net, the arena thunders with roaring fans: "Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!..." His fellow players mob him as the crowd grows even wilder. You start to hear them speak their native language -- Persian. Kevin Sheppard is the hero of A.S. Shiraz, a team in Iran's elite Basketball Super League.

And the incomplete reels of The Iran Job have much more to offer than just sports. The brainchild of the husband-and-wife team of Till Schauder and Sara Nodjoumi, the documentary about the life of an American playing professional basketball in Iran is set to be completed soon. Even as a work in progress, it is powerful enough to force you into hysterical laughter and move you to tears within a span of seconds. As dramatic as it all sounds, the story of how the documentary came to be made is equally filled with intrigue.

Sara's first visit to Iran was in 2000, more than two decades after she and her family left. Till's was in 2004. "I love basketball," he says, adding "I have a vested interest in Iran." By 2007, after a few more visits, they had made up their minds to make a documentary about the experiences of an American playing in the Super League. But even before they had identified an individual to focus on, their plans were complicated by the arrival of their first child. Instead of both going to test the waters, Till had to leave Sara and their newborn baby behind when he packed up for Tehran in May 2007. While he found excited team managers, it took another year until they met a suitable candidate.

By the fall of 2008, Till and Sara had almost given up on making the movie because they hadn't been able to find a player they were interested in following through an entire season. Their luck changed when they found out about Kevin Sheppard. Thirty seconds of Skype chat later, they felt he might be their guy. A two-day visit to Tehran confirmed that the cinema gods had indeed responded to their plight. Till believes the movie simply wouldn't be as charming and touching without him. "To make a such a film, you need a special person. Kevin is documentary gold." And he may be right.

Still, making the movie wasn't an easy task, even before the antigovernment protests in mid-2009 that drastically affected working conditions throughout the country. Till wasn't given a journalist visa. Instead, he had to get a tourist visa and work cautiously so as to not raise alarms. "I had a small backpack. I told myself, my camera, my cable, and my microphone and my batteries need to fit in this backpack," Till says. That gave him the peace of mind to believe that if he was ever questioned, he could claim to be just an unassuming tourist. Things went smoothly from that point on...for a while.

Viewers may be shocked to see how well Kevin, who hails from the American Virgin Islands, meshes with the citizens of a country routinely described as his homeland's enemy number one. On the other hand, he finds himself in situations that he can relate to about as much as an alien could relate to our planet. Then there's the scene where a restaurant worker dances like a chicken just to make sure that's what his foreign customer wants.

Till took three trips and spent almost three months in Iran to shoot the hour-and-a-half-long documentary. "We ended up shooting three to four hundred hours of footage," the German-born director says. But his nervousness about the length evaporated when he got to the editor's table. "I thought I had shot too much, but the editor was totally relaxed. He told me people come to them with upwards of 1,000 hours of footage."

Those 300 to 400 hours include gripping moments of Kevin winning the hearts of crowds with his hoop skills. While he fights to get his team into the playoffs, he befriends characters as complex as himself. While he's surrounded by men, he manages to make friends with three Iranian women who open his eyes to the reality of life in the country and the resentment and anger much of the population feels toward the government. All the while, he has to bear witness to anti-U.S. graffiti on walls and the prying eyes of onlookers who are curious to know what an African American is doing among his supposed enemies.

After he was detained at the Tehran airport in the spring of 2009, Till had to stop his visits. "They took me to a room and held me there for 24 hours," he says. "The TV in the room was playing the 1982 World Cup final between Germany and Italy over and over again." The game, one of the German soccer team's most painful defeats, was almost too much to bear for Till. "They were using Chinese torture methods to crack me!"

Back home in New York City, Sara and Till are at work finishing the final cut of the film. Interest has been huge, with support coming from countries all around the world. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of the documentary has already raised over $67,000 and counting. They are eyeing a premier within a few months, ending their five-year-long journey. "Let's put it this way," Till says, "when we first started this film, we had no kids. Now we have two!"

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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