Bigger than Basketball


With a title like “The Iran Job,” perhaps the most obvious thought is not that this movie is about a young basketball player going to Iran to bring a newly formed team to the playoffs. Or even that Iran has such a large fan base for basketball. Perhaps one thinks this documentary is going to be all about politics, and one wouldn’t be completely wrong in thinking this. Yet “The Iran Job,” by filmmakers Till Schauder and Sara Nodjoumi, weaves these two seemingly disparate subjects into one honest and hilarious narrative.

This documentary follows the year that Kevin Sheppard, of the US Virgin Islands, signs on to bring the team of A.S. Shiraz to the Iranian Super League playoffs, a feat that seems near impossible at the onset. A montage of missed shots and basketballs bouncing off the rim and Kevin saying that this is the worst basketball he’s ever seen prove that this team needs a lot of work and reliance on his leadership. Throughout the film, footage of the early games show the team on a losing streak, but over time, Kevin’s intense passion and energy for the sport begins to influence his fellow teammates and they start winning.

“Going to get the ‘W’” becomes their mantra of sorts, which Kevin develops to help pump them up for future games and inspire them to keep fighting. The charisma displayed in Kevin Sheppard characterizes and carries this documentary, as seen in his interactions with a young Iranian man who dances when they meet and who Kevin calls “my boy,” and in other laugh-inducing scenes of Kevin learning the Iranian culture and lifestyle with his teammates and others he meets along the way.

While this film mostly focuses on basketball, politics come into play as well. As Kevin states early on, “I try to stay away from politics. That’s a dangerous game. I try to focus on what I do, and that is basketball.”

Yet these two sides of Iranian culture inevitably come together through Kevin’s developing friendship with three women: Hilda, his physical therapist’s assistant, and her friends, Laleh, and Elaheh. Though these three women appear later on in the film, they provide a new dynamic to the story of basketball and politics. They seek change, especially for women’s rights with regards to marriage and positions of political power. And they seek to make these changes themselves, rather than leave Iran and live without fear that their rather liberal views may get them in serious trouble with the strict government regime. In the scenes with these three women, such as when Elaheh shows Kevin around the city or when they are all in his apartment and discuss different aspects of their culture, such as eating a meal and then staying to talk rather than leaving right afterward, the story takes on a much deeper level of questioning social customs and inspiring change rather than just the typical underdog-to-champion plotline of making it to the playoffs.

So if you are anything like me, watching “The Iran Job” will make you cry with laughter at Kevin’s and his teammates’ antics, cheer them on when they need a buzzer beater to win the game, marvel at the freedom Hilda, Laleh, and Elaheh exercise, and wish with them for a change. While the initial story begins with Kevin and basketball, the real story lies in the transition from fear to hope when one hears the word “Iran.” And as Kevin says near the end of the film, “This thing is bigger than basketball.”