An African-American basketball player temporarily relocates to the Middle East in “The Iran Job,” a slender, shaggy but involving look at how this outsider athlete bonds with not only his teammates, but also three local women who speak oncamera about their everyday oppression. Though likely to prove revelatory only for viewers with little knowledge of political, religious and gender-based constraints in Iran, director Till Schauder’s docu reps a lively amalgam of sports pic and cultural commentary that, with an assist from the nation’s ongoing topicality, should court fest play and cabler interest.
A native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands who never realized his NBA dreams, point guard Kevin Sheppard reluctantly rebounds in 2008 by signing a yearlong contract with A.S. Shiraz, a new team in southwestern Iran. His goal as captain is to lead the team, ranked at the bottom of the nation’s Super League, into the playoffs — a hopeless-seeming prospect that gradually improves as Sheppard tames his initial angry streak and inspires his teammates to play hard.
Boisterous and outspoken, Sheppard is as imposing verbally as he is physically. Yet his clear standing as the team’s most valuable and experienced player serves to largely defuse the ethnic tension one would expect to arise from the situation, at least based on the footage selected (Sheppard’s boorish wisecracks about a local man’s resemblance to Saddam Hussein notwithstanding).
Following a traditional game-by-game structure that keeps the stakes always in the foreground (aided by smart, solid graphics), the docu could have taken a more focused look at the team’s practice regimen or dug deeper into the fundamentals of how this particularly American sport is played and regarded in Iran. Yet the camera’s occasional sidelong glances into the bleachers, where men and women sit in separate sections, provides an early suggestion of where Schauder’s interests really lie.
The docu’s most engrossing scenes unfold in Sheppard’s apartment, where three young women, including his physical-therapy nurse, come to hang out.Not without some fear and anxiety, they eventually remove their head scarves oncamera and speak honestly about their frustrations with life in a country they nonetheless love and regard as home. The undercurrent of danger at these cross-gender gatherings is unmistakable, even if the parameters remain somewhat vague; Sheppard, seen regularly corresponding with his supportive if not-exactly-thrilled g.f., doesn’t seem to have romance on his mind, although there are clear ripples of attraction here that the camera can’t help but pick up on.
Pic ultimately serves as an elementary primer on life in Iran, capturing the strong Islamic influence in all aspects of society yet also celebrating the warmth, humor and tough, complicated humanity of its inhabitants. The 2009-10 protests following the disputed election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provide this outsider’s story with a natural if somewhat muted conclusion, as well as a faintly optimistic rebuke to former president George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric (addressed early on here).
Extensive use of tracks by Iranian hip-hop artists including Shahin Najafi, Jaduguaran and ZedBazi lends some extra kick to the crisply shot basketball footage, though the limited duration of these scenes makes it clear that they’re not the docu’s raison d’etre.