It’s common to read about basketball players who don’t make it in the NBA and instead take gigs playing in Italy or Brazil, but in 2008, Virgin Islands native Kevin Sheppard signed up for the Iranian Super League, agreeing to lead a brand new team of young players for an owner who believed that bringing in an American would help him win a championship in his first year. Till Schauder’s The Iran Job follows Sheppard’s Iranian adventure, as he adjusts not just to the language barrier and the political anxieties, but also to a different kind of basketball. Sheppard plays a 24-game schedule in a 13-team league, where the top eight teams advance to the playoffs, and each team is only allowed two foreign players. (Sheppard’s best friend and roommate is his team’s other foreigner, a 7-foot-tall Serbian.) The crowds—separated by gender—dance and sing throughout the games, and are scandalized when Sheppard is caught on camera kicking a bucket on the sidelines in anger. But soon Sheppard’s instincts kick in, and his team begins rising in the standings.
For the most part, The Iran Job follows the arc of a traditional misfits-make-good sports comedy, though beyond some early details about how the league works, it’s sparse on basketball details. (What is life like for the other foreign players—Americans especially? How do the Iranian players feel about being treated as second-class? Foreigners make twice what the regular players make, but is that a decent wage?) Schauder seems more interested in providing cultural and historical context. He focuses on the religious and anti-American wall posters in the streets, and shows how the election of President Barack Obama affected life in Iran, where some began to feel that the entire world was about to change for the better.
The sports drama gives The Iran Job a strong hook, while the cultural context enriches the movie’s real story, which is less about Sheppard’s life in Iran than about the people he meets. After puzzling over a country where he has trouble getting Internet access but has 100 sex channels on his satellite TV, and where he can only buy fake beer in public markets, but can get super-alcoholic beer elsewhere, Sheppard starts to get a handle on Iran’s contradictions when he befriends three professional women. His new companions are opinionated and vivacious, even though they know they’re under constant threat of arrest for casual improprieties. They help transform The Iran Job from a fish-out-of-water movie into a documentary about the people who persevere through whatever craziness their governments and their chosen careers thrust upon them.