The Iran Job: LAFF Review

Basketball doc takes an insider look at Islamic culture and Iranian sports, finding them largely inseparable.

An African-American basketball player picks up some life lessons during a stint playing in an Iranian pro league.

Despite a title suggesting an alternative Three Kings-style caper movie, The Iran Job is a fairly prosaic sports-meets-social issue doc that’s long on goodwill, but short on dramatic development. International- and documentary-focused fests may take notice; prospects otherwise lie with cable or VOD.

Pro basketball player Kevin Sheppard is a gun-for-hire, contracting out to international teams worldwide from his home in the US Virgin Islands to bolster their often shaky ranks. After stints in Brazil, China, Spain and Venezuela, Sheppard ships out to Iran in 2008 for a year leading the newly formed A.S. Shiraz team in the national Super League, right in the midst of vitriolic Bush administration anti-Iran posturing.

Excelling in the league would seem to offer little challenge for African-American point guard Sheppard, since the average skill level remains noticeably below even top American college teams, but he’s constantly held back by his bumbling teammates. Adjusting to both conservative Islamic culture and the amateurish level of play, Sheppard improbably succeeds at bringing the team along as they haltingly advance toward the final-eight championship round.

Meanwhile the country is seething with political turmoil, as upstarts in the reformist Green Movement challenge autocratic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while campaigning for upcoming elections. Sheppard finds some respite from the worst effects of culture clash by socializing with his Iranian and international teammates, as well as befriending his physical therapist and her two friends, who comprise a trio of progressive, outspoken young women.

In public and on the court, Sheppard cuts something of an outsized figure -- a bundle of enthusiasm and humor charming nearly everyone he encounters, despite his obvious lack of cultural sensitivity. Director-cinematographer Till Schauder also obtains crucial insider access to the frequently frank discussions between Sheppard and his female acquaintances, who discuss their thoughts and feelings about politics, career and family with a freedom widely considered completely inappropriate in Iran.

With the advent of region-wide Arab Spring movements, however, these insights seem more repetitive than revelatory. Ultimately perhaps the film falls victim to overexposure resulting from widespread coverage of the disparate issues currently propelling much of the Islamic world into the multicultural realities of the 21st century. Technical aspects are serviceable overall, with a selection of Iranian hip hop tracks kicking things up a notch or two.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival

Production company: Partner Pictures

Director: Till Schauder
Producers: Sara Nodjoumi, Till Schauder
Executive producer: Abigail Disney
Director of photography: Till Schauder
Music: Kareem Roustom
Editors: David Teague, Till Schauder

No rating, 93 minutes