Documentary shows Sheppard's time in IranEditor's note: "The Iran Job" opens at the Laemmle in L.A. (Sept 28) and at the IFC Center in New York (Oct 12).
Filmmaker Till Schauder was alone in a detention center at the Tehran Airport. He didn't know why he'd been pulled out of the security line upon arrival in Iran; the guards who grabbed him said only one English word: "Blacklist."
Schauder had used a tourist's visa several times before to fly into Tehran and gather footage for "The Iran Job," his documentary about Kevin Sheppard, an American point guard playing professional basketball in Iran. He had never been stopped, but now he was in a holding room that would make most hostels seem like four-star hotels, and he had no idea how long he might have to stay.
As a precaution, Schauder shredded and flushed several catalogs of his father-in-law's art -- stuff too satirical and provocative for most people in Iran. He repacked his camera equipment, crossing his fingers that the guards would remain uninterested in his belongings.
Back at home, his pregnant wife, Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American and the film's producer, wondered why he hadn't met her family outside the airport. Schauder still had his cellphone and was able to assure her he was OK, though he had no idea when he might return home. One of Nodjoumi's cousins bribed someone at the airport to see Schauder and confirm he wasn't in any danger.
An old television in the room where Schauder was detained played just one program, over and over again -- the 1982 World Cup final between Germany and Italy. It was a terrible defeat for Schauder's native Germany and he was now forced to watch it on a loop.
After 24 hours he was put on a plane and sent back to the United States, though he never got an explanation for his blacklisting. Filmmaker friends in Iran had to shoot the final scenes of the documentary for Schauder and ship the footage to his mother in Germany; she would then ship it to New York.
Someone should have documented the making of "The Iran Job," for the stories behind the scenes were almost as compelling as the stories captured on film.
In 2007, Schauder read an article about Americans playing professional basketball in Iran. The concept of sports bringing together two conflicting nations reminded him of pingpong diplomacy in the 1970s, and he and Nodjoumi were inspired to marry her connection to Iran with his two great loves, filmmaking and basketball.
The key to making their project more than just a sports movie or "fish out of water" tale was to find a player with the charisma to carry a full-length film.
"If you're going to do something longer than a short reportage, you really have to have an entertaining character," Schauder explained. "It's like casting a movie, in a way. We eventually found Kevin [Sheppard], arranged a Skype call with him and immediately fell in love."
Sheppard, a point guard from the U.S. Virgin Islands who played college ball at Jacksonville University, was about to start a contract with AS Shiraz in the Iranian Super League. His previous experience playing abroad in Venezuela, Israel, Argentina and Puerto Rico, combined with his outgoing personality, convinced Schauder and Nodjoumi that Sheppard could help make their film be about more than basketball.
"He's very perceptive and intelligent," Schauder said of his star. "We had a hope that he would touch on bigger things. And he sure enough did."
At first Sheppard questioned signing with a team in Iran, but then he remembered having the same doubts about playing in Israel."Once I got to Israel and saw Tel Aviv and how beautiful it was, it changed my whole perception of everything I hear on the news about people blowing each other up and blowing up buses and stuff like that," he said. "I thought maybe I'd get surprised in the same way in Iran, and I did; it was one of the best places I've been in the world.
"Sometimes you have to step out of the box and discover things for yourself."
Schauder took more than 300 hours of footage in Iran. But of all the stories he captured, Sheppard's unique relationship with three young Iranian women stood out most. Early on Sheppard connected with his team's physiotherapist, Hilda, as she had a much better grasp of English than most of his teammates and coaches. She introduced Sheppard to two of her friends from English class soon after.
The three women took Sheppard on tours of the city and out to dinners. They practiced their English and snuck into his apartment to have long, impassioned conversations about politics, religion and war. Sheppard's Serbian roommate, Zoran Majkic, who lived through the NATO bombings of 1999, would often join them.
"It had this feel of an international global story of pure humanity -- all of it through sports," Schauder said. "It was exactly what we were hoping for. Of course, we couldn't have expected all this."
For Sheppard, a friendship with the women meant a crash course in human rights and sexual inequalities in Iran.
"It was amazing to me that the women over there -- even though they are some of the most intelligent people in the world -- they can't express themselves in the way that an American woman can," Sheppard said. "A lot of them were engineers; one of them had a Ph.D. Imagine that they have such a high level of education but they're restrained from exploring their highest possibilities."
When Sheppard's new friends wanted to attend his games, they had to sit in a segregated section. At one point, they were even banned from attending altogether. Sheppard struggled to understand why they didn't fight harder for the kind of rights his female friends in America have.
"Why they don't do something? Why they don't get out [of Iran]?" he would ask. "But then the women would tell me stories about how they would put them in holes and stone them, how they have to be so respectful to their religion and their culture. I could see that the fear was upon them."
Seeing 'The Iran Job'
Because Sheppard is a basketball player, not an activist, "The Iran Job" isn't heavy-handed in its approach to larger issues. Viewers see Iran through Sheppard's eyes and learn with him as he makes friends, struggles with the language barrier and ultimately leads his team to its first playoff appearance.
Sheppard, now 32, is back in the Virgin Islands with his wife, raising a 1-year-old daughter and running his nonprofit organization, Choices Basketball Association. He also coaches the team at his high school and runs after-school programs, teaching not only basketball but also respect for the game and one another.
He believes he was meant to end his basketball career in Iran, where he was reminded of the importance of family, bore witness to true humility, and learned about the good and real people who make up a country so many Americans see only as "the enemy."
Sheppard hopes Schauder and Nodjoumi are able to raise enough capital for a true theatrical release of their film.
"What we see over here on this side of the world is all about the government, how they're trying to blow up Israel and so forth," he said. "But what everybody is forgetting all about is, it's all about the people. War has casualties. There are innocent people over there who probably want change in Iran, too, but that side of the story is not being told."