Last week, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a place generally known for weighty discussions on matters of global import, guests gathered to watch a film about basketball.
The star of the show was a tall, muscular, 32-year-old American named Kevin Sheppard, who was recruited four years ago to play basketball in Iran. The season he spent playing in the southern city of Shiraz became the subject of an upcoming documentary, “The Iran Job,” whose producers held a “work in progress” screening. Afterward, the husband-and-wife team talked about the little-known world of basketball diplomacy.
Iranian teams offer lavish salaries to foreigners willing to play there, and every year a handful of Americans are scattered through the country’s basketball league. The idea for the film was to find an American “who would go into Iran with a lot of the same perceptions and misperceptions as a lot of us,” said Till Schauder, who wrote, produced, directed and shot it.
Sheppard, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1979 — the year that Iranians staged a revolution and occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — fit the bill. He said he knew little about Iran before going there.
In the film, Sheppard teaches the Iranians how to raise the level of their play and pump themselves up, and the Iranians teach him about Persian politeness and subtle ways of circumventing government oppression.
Along the way, Sheppard’s views on Iran evolve. “I had all the preconceptions that people were on camels, that they were terrorists, that they were probably making bombs,” he said in a telephone interview from the Virgin Islands, where he runs a basketball camp for disadvantaged youths.
Instead, he finds teammates who confide in him about girl troubles and refuse to let him pay for dinner. He meets women who express their frustration with state-imposed restrictions and young fans who shyly ask for his do-rag as a memento.
Sheppard said he hopes the film, expected to be released next year, will alter U.S. perceptions of Iran at a time when diplomacy is at a low. “I think that once you get an opportunity to see it, you must have a change of heart about the Iranians because you’re going to see real live people, with real lives and real struggles,” he said.
The film is full of funny moments, such as when Sheppard enlists his baffled building manager to help him find a Christmas tree, or when an elderly man selling antiques eagerly tells Sheppard that he smoked marijuana in the United States.
Schauder and his wife and co-producer, Sara Nodjoumi, who is of Iranian descent, said an Iranian government official was initially supportive but then abruptly changed his mind and told them the project was “garbage.” They were denied journalist visas, so Schauder, a German citizen, went on a tourist visa and shot with a small hand-held camera. Eventually authorities caught on, and he was barred from entering Iran. By then, he had shot most of the film.
Despite rising tensions between the United States and Iran, Sheppard said he never had a problem on either end during the two additional seasons he went on to play there. Entering Iran, “I would say, ‘Bazi [play] basketball!’ and they say, ‘Great!’ and let you go. It’s like athletes transcend political pressures. We’re entertainers; we kind of take them away from the problems.”
Other players, though, have run into trouble with the U.S. government, which sued a player several years ago, accusing him of violating an embargo on doing business with Iran, Schauder said, adding that the player won the suit.
Schauder said he was struck by how Sheppard changed during filming, starting out as a “happy-go-lucky athlete” and ending by drawing parallels between the protesters who filled Iran’s streets during the 2009 “Green Movement” and the civil rights protesters in the United States in the 1960s.
“As an African American, I know what standing up for your rights is all about,” Sheppard says toward the film’s end. “Playing in Iran, you’re not only playing basketball, you have an effect on people’s life, and you can see it because you’re walking with them. My teammates, they’re not happy with their situation, they’re not happy with their government, but yet they come out here and play and do the best they can. It really humbles you.”
At the Tuesday screening, Yasmin Alem, a D.C. resident who is originally from the Iranian city where Sheppard played the first year, said she was struck by how open the Iranians were in front of the camera, particularly women, who took off their head scarves and talked about government oppression. “They knew the consequences of this sort of thing, and I think everyone wants to do their part,” she said.
And, of course, she added, it was nice to see her hometown team win a few games.