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'The Iran Job' Filmmaker Till Schauder & Subject Kevin Sheppard Talk Iranian Basketball Fans, Crossing Culture Barriers & More

Photo of Katie Walsh By Katie Walsh | The Playlist September 26, 2012 at 10:04AM

When the documentary “The Iran Job” premiered at LA Film Festival earlier this summer, it was met with such a warm response that the festival had to add another screening to the schedule to accommodate the demand. This was due in no small part to the winning personality of subject Kevin Sheppard, a professional basketball player from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, hired to play on an Iranian basketball team, and the genuinely moving and topical film that director Till Schauder crafted out of one man’s journey. Our review said the film was, “a highly entertaining, moving documentary that offers a unique perspective on the country through this one man.”

The Iran Job
The supporting characters were just as important to show Sheppard in context, and Schauder treated them almost like a screenwriter would.
Schauder commented on his treatment of the supporting characters, saying “with characters, you sometimes get the sense right away that they’re going to be great. Like with the girls in Iran, I right away knew this was going to be a very, very important part of the film, I think they kind of make the film, with all due respect for Kevin. But they are what makes it special I think. And the same with Abdullah, the janitor, those types of characters I knew would be great.” Regarding Sheppard’s Serbian roommate and teammate, Zoran, Schauder said, “because I spent so much time with them, I saw that this was like a comedic couple. This guy [Sheppard] is like this ball of energy and fun, and then this tall guy who never speaks, it was a funny combination.”

It wasn’t easy to incorporate many of the supporting characters though, as Sheppard was very protective of his family and girlfriend Leah, who was resistant to his leaving to go play in Iran. Schauder worked to incorporate these characters to show Sheppard in relation to his family, and as storytelling elements within the film, saying, “it was a little bit of sneaking in or trying to get to a point where they both became a little more comfortable with the idea,” and eventually, “after a few months of editing we found a way to make that resistance work as a real commentary.” Much in the same way that a filmmaker writes a script, Schauder had to “think about orchestrational characters,” which is complicated in the documentary process because “you can’t do that beforehand, you have to look at what’s going on, look at who could fill that role, and that’s what I did, and you have to do it on the fly, at least when you start shooting.” Most importantly, with all of the characters, “you always want to have each arc completed. That’s not always easy, it doesn’t always work, some arcs are left a little more open.”

The Iran Job
The wild and crazy basketball fans of Iran serve to add more color to the film, but Sheppard said he fed off their energy during games.
He praised their enthusiasm saying, “as an athlete, it breeds the kind of invisible energy that everybody keeps talking about, that twelve-man spirit. It only makes you want to play harder for them because you know how much they care. If you can just stand up and hear two thousand people calling your name, it makes you think you’re important to them so I shouldn’t let them down. It only makes you play better and harder.”

The Iran Job
Despite all the issues that the film engages with, it’s still a sports movie at heart, and Schauder relied on that structure to guide the documenatry.
Schauder said, “my real interest was using basketball as an excuse or as a platform to get into what I was really interested in, the social fabric of that country, the people, the youth, the zeitgeist and the culture clash. I figured the basketball can help provide a structure, when you do a documentary, things are hard to predict and so you just don’t know. I was hoping that if all fails, at least I have the structure of a beginning, a middle and an end of the season. Obviously I was hoping to not just have to rely on that, and that’s why all these other threads are so necessary and so important. We did use the season as a spine, and that was a nice way to not lose your path along the way."

The Iran Job
There may be another sports movie in Schauder’s future...  
As for what's next, Schauder said, “We’ve had actually some interest in turning ‘The Iran Job’ into a feature film, so that could happen but you never know, I believe it when I see it type of thing.” Schauder’s pondering a doc about a Jewish-American ice hockey player whose ancestors were killed by the Nazis and now plays for the German National Team as a possible project, but needs to convince his subject to do the film. He said, “I have to admit that with documentaries, I like them for their substance, it’s much more gratifying to make a film that actually is relevant and matters. On the other hand they just take a long time to make. I need to find that balance.”

As for Sheppard, he’s retired from professional basketball, but now he’s “back on St. Croix working with kids. A lot of young men are dropping out of school, so I formed a non-profit organization, Choices Basketball Association. What I do is after school programs for those kids, creating a venue for them to play a little basketball. As long as I have their attention in basketball I can continue to shift their minds towards positive futures and positive things. So far the guys are showing up in numbers. I’m hopeful to get some more support but I’m not giving up.”

This article is related to: Interviews, The Iran Job

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