And they even love Americans. When they meet the film's star, Kevin Sheppard, they immediately praise him and shower him with love.
'The Iran Job' trailer
Kevin Sheppard… That name may ring a bell. He is an American basketball player, who played for Israel's Maccabi Rishon Lezion club. In 2008, he signed a contract with the A.S. Shiraz team in Iran, and the film focuses his adventures in the kingdom of evil, which he embarks on feeling slightly terrified – a feeling shared by director Till Schauder, who followed him with his camera.
It's safe to assume that Schauder was followed as well throughout the shoot.
Kevin Sheppard plays for Maccabi Rishon Lezion (Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik)
"Originally the plan was for us to go as a two-person team, Sara and I," director Schauder, who is married to Iranian exile Sara Nodjoumi, tells Ynet. "But when the journalist visas that we requested were denied and it became evident that we’d have to shoot the film 'under the radar,' we decided it was safer if I went on my own, entering as a tourist with my German passport.
"Sara has US and Iranian citizenship, both of which could have been problematic if we had gotten into trouble in Iran."
What safety measures did you take so as not to get in trouble?
"I packed a small HDV camera, a wireless mic, and one extension cable – all of it small enough to fit into an unassuming backpack. The (in hindsight very naïve) thought was that if I ever got into trouble I could say that I’m just a German tourist filming the ancient sites of Iran.
"In this way, I filmed Kevin in Iran over several visits, always making sure not to call too much attention to myself, which wasn't too difficult given that I was basically a one-man-band working with a tiny camera."
Interaction with Iranians
"The Iran Job" tells Sheppard's story on and off the field – his sports training and league games, as well as his efforts to adapt to a foreign population. Sheppard, who was born in the Virgin Island, appears to be a positive, friendly and quite amusing person, which leads to a warm and often funny interaction with the Iranians.
On the other hand, we are exposed to prejudice and technological and bureaucratic deficiencies. For example, when Sheppard discovers that the apartment he shares with the team's Serbian player has just one television channel – a porn channel, because that's believed to be what foreigners enjoy.
Kevin Sheppard and his team members in Shiraz
"First came the idea, then the character," says Schauder. "In 2007 I read an article about American who play pro ball in Iran. At that time America was high at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and it looked like Iran would be next – as it does again now.
"I felt that an athlete, particularly one who plays such a quintessentially American sport like basketball, could be a good bridge builder between our two countries. I felt that he could be a kind of tour guide into Iran and its society so that we at least have a chance to understand their people better before we rush into another military engagement. Sports has a way to bring people together – and now is a good time to try and do that."
And how did you find Kevin?
"Finding a character who could be that tour guide and who could carry a feature length film was difficult. I needed someone really special – someone even my wife Sara, who is also the producer of the film, would find interesting, because she couldn't care less about basketball. And not everyone does. So I really needed someone who could appeal to a broad audience.
"Kevin is such a character – and it took us over a year to find him. In the fall of 2008, shortly after Iran’s President Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of Israel – again, Sara and I had a Skype call with Kevin. He was about to start a basketball contract in the Iranian Super League. A minute into the conversation he had us rolling on the floor laughing in spite of the prospect of playing in a country that's supposedly full of illegal nukes and Islamic terrorists.
"He had the exact qualities we were looking for in our protagonist, because they created an opportunity to add fun and positive energy to a film that could otherwise easily fall into the trap of 'another-Middle Eastern-the-world-is-about-to-end.'"
Kevin Sheppard with a fan
Sheppard's optimistic and charming personality conquers the film's audience, but he too is careful about discussing politics on camera. The locals he meets on the field and on the street are relatively more open (including an amusing scene in which a market merchant confesses to smoking marijuana in America). Often, they even criticize the social reality in America.
"Overwhelmingly, the people in Iran were extremely supportive and surprisingly comfortable in front of the camera," says Schauder. "A few times people had questions about the film and its purpose and some refused to be on camera. But for the most part people were much more willing to contribute to the film than I ever imagined."
The biggest surprise came from three young women – Laleh, Elaheh and Hilda –basketball fans who befriend Sheppard and even visit him in his apartment under the cover of the night. There they sip non-alcoholic beer with him, remove their hijab, and complain about the strict regime and the disregard of human rights, especially women's rights.
"The focus of the various story-lines changed the moment the three women entered the movie," Schauder admits. "It was clear immediately that they would become central characters. They were a filmmaker's dream.
Kevin Sheppard and Elaheh. A friendly love story
"I never wanted to make a film about just sports. I wanted to merely use sports as an entry point – a platform that would make it easy for audiences to relate to. But I was always hoping that Kevin would pull other interesting characters into the movie, as he did – not just the women, but also some of the other characters.
"The women make this film more than just a sports documentary. They offer the emotional subtext. And they also provide the personal element which makes an audience relate. Thanks to these women, we have a film that at the surface is about a basketball player but that also touches on so much more, including on women's rights."
Kevin's meetings with the women were documented secretly, and naturally they were afraid to get in trouble with the Iranian authorities. These fears likely increased after the Green Movement uprising in the summer of 2009, which resulted in the death of protestor Neda Agha-Sultan, who became the battle's tragic symbol.
"That was of course a concern," says Schauder, who was very sorry to hear about Sultan's death. "I think once they understood more about the film and what it's trying to communicate – that people are people everywhere in the world, and that the film shines a human and more accurate light on Iranians – their desire to contribute outweighed their concerns.
Beautiful Elaheh. Wants to be an actress
"The track record with such films is that typically the producer/filmmaker feel repercussions, if in fact there are any, not so much the subjects. This seems to be confirmed in our case where neither Sara nor I are currently allowed into Iran.
"I also hope that anyone who sees the film – including conservative elements in Iran – will recognize that these women give Iran a very human and relatable face, and most of all that film celebrates what we as people can achieve when we dare to engage with each other."
Sara Nodjoumi and Till Schauder. Not allowed into Iran
Schauder's secret operation was apparently uncovered toward the end of the shoot.
"On my last trip to Iran – in the run-up to Iran’s 2009 election – I was informed that I had made it onto a 'black list' (for reasons still not clear to us), and was put in detention in a kind of 'hotel-prison' inside the glitzy new Tehran airport.
"Sara was at home – five months pregnant with our second child – while I was in Tehran hand-shredding some not-so-cool-documents-when-you’re-stuck-in-Iran and flushing them down the toilet.
"The following morning I was sent back to New York on the next plane – a stroke of luck in retrospect given the number of filmmakers and journalists recently arrested in Iran."
Tuning out politics
"The Iran Job" exposes the painful nerves of Iranian citizens living under oppression, but fails to tackle international political issues, which are embedded into the film mainly through segments from news bulletins.
"I chose to make this film about people rather than politics, and that's why I chose sports as a medium," says Schauder. "What you see on CNN and probably your own mainstream media in Israel is quite unrepresentative of what's actually going on in Iran, especially when it comes to the regular people.
Kevin Sheppard and market merchants cracking jokes
"So the point was not to show another round of fear-mongering news clips, but to show actual people. The political is always personal – and so it was important for me to show people rather than news clips. Just yesterday we had a screening at the Vancouver Film Festival. Afterwards two Israeli citizens came to me and pleaded for the film to be shown on your public television so people there get a different perspective on Iran."
According to Schauder, two Israeli television channels have already approached him in a bid to buy the film.
The Israeli issue is kind of pushed aside, even though Kevin played here.
"I actually tried to work the Israel-angle into the film because Kevin did say some interesting things about the relationship of the two countries. And it's obviously kind of ironic that he played in both countries.
"For example, he said that in his mind the people of Israel and Iran are remarkably alike. They are both surrounded by enemies so they have a tendency to withdraw from the outside world. They hold strong family ties, they keep up their histories and traditions like few other people do. Most of all, he thinks they get along just fine when their respective governments move out of the way."
This is Shiraz. A peek into everyday life
And what was your impression of the people on the street and their opinion about Israel?
"Some were definitely hardcore in their critique of Israeli policy, but nobody I met ever criticized Israelis as people. I think most Iranians assume, that – just like in Iran – there is a difference between what the government, or certain hardline elements, say and what the people actually think.
"And I've had plenty of people there introduce me to Jewish friends. Iran still has a relatively sizable Jewish community, compared to most places in the region."
Below the surface
And what about the Americans? They are also surprised to see Iranian citizens who do not agree with their government's official stand. The film has won widespread acclaim on the eve of the US elections.
"We've shown the film to people of both sides of the political spectrum. In Florida, we were hosted by donors of President Bush who are now donating in a major way to Governor Romney's campaign. They got a kick out of the film just the same as some of the donors to President Obama's campaign who've seen the film," says the director, who has been leading a campaign for commercial distribution of the documentary.
"In Houston, a veteran came to me after the screening – a chubby guy who probably flew a bomber plane not so long ago – and he thanked me for making the film. We get the same positive reaction across the board. I think it's because the film doesn't focus on politics, but instead on people. People are interested in finding constructive solutions. They seem less interested in fear mongering and military conflicts."
And what is your stand on the current political situation and tension regarding Iran?
"Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines – and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran’s hardline leaders – lies one of the most fascinating and life-loving people I've ever come across.
"My film focuses on Iran’s people, rather than its government, and I hope it can challenge perceptions of Iran by providing an authentic perspective that may be crucial when choices are made between war and peace.
"Having visited Iran a number of times now, I remain fascinated by contemporary Iran, specifically by its young people and their desire for social and political change."
Kevin Sheppard and his three friends visit Persepolis
What was the most difficult moment from the time you were shooting the film in Iran?
"When I spent that night in detention at the airport in Tehran, the detention room had a television, so I spent the night trying to find something to watch to ease my concerns. But the television had only one channel, and it played a loop of the 1982 soccer World cup Final between my native Germany and Italy – one of the most painful defeats our team ever suffered.
"I think the Iranians knew how to fry my nerves. It was like Chinese water torture. Beyond that night though, nothing was particularly frightening.
"Quite a few things were a bit surreal though – most of all, the constant clash between what you see on the surface – the murals on the walls exclaiming, 'Death to America' – and then the people who yell, 'We love Americans' – or even, 'We love black people!' This happened to Kevin all the time, and being African American he got a good laugh out of it. As our audiences do now..."