Friday, October 12, 2012

Super Doc on Iran at the Right Time

The Iran Job is Playing in Theaters

Super Doc on Iran at the Right Time

(from 10/12/12)

Iranjobphoto.jpg Till Schauder and Kevin Sheppard,
photo by DP
I'll make the wild prediction that Argo will be the biggest-grossing Iran-set movie this weekend. But that film might whet your appetite for The Iran Job, a more intimate, sympathetic, and up-to-date documentary--set in Shiraz--about the people of that country that is also opening in New York today, at the IFC Center. Directed and photographed by Till Schauder (who has made award-winning films in his native Germany and America, where he now lives), it tells the unusual story of American professional basketball player and Jacksonville U. star Kevin Sheppard, who travels from his home in the US Virgin Islands to Iran to play point guard for the new A.S. Sharaz, in southwestern Iran. He experiences culture shock--in a good way--as he becomes close not only to his teammates but also to three special, brave women, Elaheh, Hilda, and Laleh, and much happens on the political landscape. Schauder says in the press notes, "This film is a story of people coming together to learn from each other. It shares our shared humanity and it points toward what unites us, rather than what separates us." It's a major message at a time when our political candidates debate about who is tougher toward Iran and "when" Schauder says, "we muse about going to war with people we often know too little about." I recently had this conversation with the engaging Schauder and Sheppard in anticipation of their film's timley release.
Danny Peary: Till, I read that you met Kevin via Skype when you were searching for a basketball player to follow.
Till Schauder: I did in-person auditions with some players and I literally shot footage with them. I had them come here, or I went to where they were. They were all okay, but I really needed somebody special. My wife Sara Nodjoumi, who co-produced with me, told me, "I don't care about basketball, so you've got to find somebody who's going to entertain me--and by "me" she meant everybody who doesn't care about basketball. So it had to be a basketball player who had something more to offer. I had gone on one research trip and made some connections with coaches and scouts in Iran and put them and Sara in touch because she speaks Farsi. When an American player got signed, they would let her know. Unfortunately, because of the quick way contracts work there, there was almost no way for me to prepare. Kevin got a call on Monday and on Wednesday they expected him to be there. That's how quick that goes. So that's why we had to meet on Skype rather than in person. But you can tell a lot on Skype, and with him, I could see his curiosity and that he is someone who doesn't try to please anybody and doesnt try to censor himself. He never tried to say anything to please me because he thought it was what the filmmaker wanted to hear. I loved that quality. He would joke about Iranians and about Americans. That was very important.
DP: Kevin, did you know about the Iranian Super League before they offered you a contract?
Kevin Sheppard: No. It was really ironic because when my agent called me, he was like, Do you want to go to Iran? I thought he was punking me or something--"Are you serious? Do they even have basketball?" I had this perception of the country as it was portrayed in the media, that there was mass destruction and Bin Laden types over there. It never crossed my mind that they played basketball until I did a little research.
DP: Had somebody scouted you?
KS: Yeah, I had played in Europe, South America, Israel, and China. They could follow my progress. I had a pretty good track record. Before you go over, they have to offer you a certain amount of money. My agent relayed the message to me and I thought about it for a couple of days before saying yes.
DP: Is there any specific reason they wanted a point guard rather than a big man?
KS: I think I actually changed the process. Most foreign teams can bring in only two foreigners, and normally they bring in two big guys. A lot of the time, the big guys are less skillful, but the little guys come a dime a dozen. I actually broke that mold when A.S. Shiraz brought in a point guard to be the leader of the team. I think once owners saw my effectiveness as a leader on and off the court, a lot more point guards started coming over. We started a new trend.
DP: Did guys you met there want to be point guards or did they all want to be forwards?
KS: A lot of the guys really wanted to be point guards. But someone who doesnt play basketball doesn't understand that the point guard has to be the extension of the coach. He also must be someone who leads by example. And he's gotta be able to sacrifice his game to help a lesser players reach their potential. For example, I knew I was a better shooter than a lot of my teammates but I gave up a lot of shots because I had to give them an opportunity to get involved in the game. If another player is going to play harder for me and is going to play better for the team, I have to sacrifice my shot to give him a shot. A point guard has to know all of these things.
DP: Did your Iranian coach understand that too?
KS: Well, I dont know if he understood that or not because we didn't understand each other. I had played college ball and in so many different countries and played all these different styles, so I could tell what kind of play and feel the coach wanted. He was right up my alley. All he needed to do was just show me the play and give me the options--one, two, or three--and my instincts would take over and I'd take the best option. I did it very effectively, so he just let me take the lead.
DP: Till, you include documentary footage of what was going on politically in Iran while Kevin was playing ball there. It makes the film more political. Was it always your intention to do that?
TS: I wanted the film to be mostly action-based, meaning no talking heads, no sit-down interviews. Everything had to come out of Kevin and the people that he meets. My background is in feature films, so it's always about the character--all drama comes from the characters. However, I was also documenting a period in history--the Green Movement, the presidential election in the US and the presidential election in Iran--and it was clear that events were going to happen, and I needed to document them, to at least give the audience a frame of reference. I used as little documentary footage as possible, but enough to give people a sense of time and where they are.
DP: Kevin, did you know that was going to be in the film when you were making it, that he was going to be make it into a more political film than it would be if he just followed you around?
KS: I didn't know anything, I'd never done a documentary film before, I hadn't watched many documentaries before, so I didnt know what to expect. He basically just told me, "Be natural, I'm just going to follow you around. Not just on the basketball court, but everywhere you go." So it wasn't anything that was planned or rehearsed or scripted. Nobody knew that these things were going to happen. I didn't know.
DP: Till, you sort of vanish in this film. Kevin calls attention to you only a couple of times. But when you turned off the camera, what conversations would you two have during this period?
TS: I would always try to leave the camera on. Always. Even when we were just casually talking.
KS (laughing): I'd be coming out the bathroom and he's standing there with the camera. It was pretty annoying!
TS: You never know what comes, and those casual conversations can be the most interesting and enlightening. I would always learn something new about him, so as I was making the film, he kind of revealed himself, like an onion. There's this layer, that layer and another layer and so forth. We talked about almost everything. You name it. At some point we talked about our families and we realized that we both have four siblings, we both are in the middle, we both had fathers that didn't necessarily approve of what we were doing. Weird similarities that made me really comfortable with him, beyond the fact that he was being very gracious for letting me into his life. We talked about everything: politics, women, sports. We talked about football because it was football season. We would talk about basketball, which was fun for me because I used to play. That was actually great because it got my mind off the more serious parts of this movie. We talked about soccer.
KS: When Germany was playing, get out of his way!
TS: This is not untrue.
DP: The film is a lot about your enlightenment, Kevin, how while being there you saw this world that you never saw before.
KS: All that was natural. When he first told me about the film, I thought, this is going to be pretty boring, just watching basketball all day--especially my team play basketball.
My team was not really the most talented team, as you could tell. One of the things that I learned overseas is they put all the best players on three or four top teams, and the rest of the teams are so mediocre they just fight it out.
DP: If you hadn't had that mindset that your team was going to win the title--which was an impossibility--would you have even made the playoffs?
KS: That's a great question. Thinking back, I didn't even think we were going to make it to the playoffs, really. I didn't tell anyone that, I just had to see how I could motivate those guys to go beyond what they were thinking. A lot of the time when we would play those top teams, we would lose, but we would play well. Against one of the best teams, we lost by only two points. I was so mad and disappointed, but these guys on my team were jumping around happy, because they couldn't believe they played so good against this super-team. I was like, "Man, this culture is crazy!" I'd rather lose by fifty, knowing I got my butt kicked, than lose by one or two. That tells me I had an opportunity to win and didn't. That struggle itself was something.
DP: But the thing is they werent going backwards.
KS: Definitely, they were improving. And I saw the improvement, because they let me in, into their lifestyle and how they live. Which is pretty weird, because as overseas players, we could get fired at any time and be sent home--it's not guaranteed like in the NBA. So if you don't produce you could be gone on the next plane.. So the job is so not secure. All the overseas players know this, so they stick together. And the locals on the team stay together, because the locals are going to always have a job. But I was mingling with these guys, and then I started getting caught up emotionally with them, and it really opened me up because it made me understand why they do some of the things they do on the court. A lot of the time their personal lives were getting triggered by and intermingled with their court performances. I'm coming from America, I'm coming from Jacksonville University, a structured society. I go to practice at three oclock, practice starts at three, I'm getting ready, I'm swearing, three oclock hits, boom, practice starts. But in Iran, the players are coming to practice with their shoes in their hands at 3:15, and the coach is reading at 3:45; it was just total chaos. I'm like, what is going on here? It was mind-boggling to me that this was a professional team. This is crazy! But then I started seeing how they live. Everything for them is so nonchalant. Dont worry, were just going to get it down. Insha'Allah, God willing we're going to do it. And that goes for everything. Insha'Allah can turn into one day, into two weeks, into one month. I'll never forget Insha'Allah. Tomorrow, God willing. Everything is tomorrow.
DP: In the movie, there's a line by you explaining why you agreed to play in Iran--"God said to go to the unfamiliar." Soon you were in a strange world
KS: I'm actually spiritual. I don't like to associate myself so much with religion because I know that a lot of the time religion is among the causes for the biggest problems we are having in the world. Whether it's Muslim or Christianity, when you do go back and read the text itself, you see it's the same God that all of us are praying to. The one thing He asks us to do is love. So if love is supposed to be the antidote to everything, we should love each other no matter who we are. So I took the opportunity to go from the familiar, my normal surroundings in the Virgin Islands, and go to the other, where everybody thinks they have weapons of mass destruction and terrorists. Maybe they do, I don't know. But at least I wanted 
to find it out for myself.
  Kevin meets Iranians who love Americans.
DP: What did you find out about the Iranian people?
KS: They are so genuinely nice. They won't let you pay for nothing, even when you try to sneak it in. They cursed me out when I paid and made me take my money back. They go at every level to make you feel welcome. And thats something that I'll never forget, because these are the things I never hear, growing up in America and the Virgin Islands.
DP: The great thing about this movie is that it shows you, intimately, the very people some people in America want to bomb. Till, can you talk a little about that, and how your film is about people coming together to learn from each other?
TS: What you just said is true, about how we must make sure we know who were getting into a military conflict with. Our executive producer, Abigail Disney, who I cant praise enough, just wrote a blog that will be on the Huffington Post. She used an LA Times quote about the film where they call it a "remarkably apolitical political film." The whole blog is about the personal versus the political and how you can't disconnect the two, so when we in America look at these satellite pictures and just see these dots and say, "Okay, that's Baghdad, if they dont do what we want them to do well bomb them," it is all extremely abstract. Its simple then to go and do something because you really have no concept of what it actually does to real people. This may sound like a very obvious thing, but to a lot of people it just is not. With Iran for example, the overwhelming perception in America is that we need to fear these people. They are the biggest part of the Axis of Evil or whatever is left of it. It's always about fear and is based on a lot of missing information or misinformation. I always like to point out that Iranians have a very high opinion of Americans as people. The polls there, when they ask about the favorability of Americans, are incredibly high, 60%, 70% in favor. You would never get that in any other country in the region, including Israel. That needs to be told. People in America need to know this. Why are we wanting to go to war with people who have such a good opinion of us? That's not to say that there's not an issue with the regime. But it's very dangerous to lump the regime, or the government, with the people. You just cannot do that.
DP: A'' Obama has to say is, "The people there are very much like us, they like us, and they're against the regime too. So we dont want to bomb them." That's enough. But we don't hear that.
KS: No, we don't.
TS: There's something else that's important. There is often the perception that Iranians are nice but since they have a government that is the problem, we need to go help them and make their country like ours, because that's how everybody wants to live. That's just not the case. One of my favorite lines in the film is when one of the three young women Kevin befriends says, "I want to see the changes here in the country, I don't want to go anywhere and enjoy their democracy. I want to have it in my county." Iranians love their country and their culture. They don't want to live in America, or Germany or whatever. They want to live in their own country, where they have their people, their culture, their food, their music, all the rest of it; they just want to do in circumstances that are agreeable to them. That's important, because some elements of American political circles, they have this idea that we are the saviors and bringing them something that's not always wanted by those people. Also, I think it's crucial that they figure out their own mess. They can't rely on somebody else to do it for them. It doesn't work, there are very few exceptions where that has worked, with Germany, ironically being one of them.
DP: Because of Abigail Disney's involvement, were you planning on having a woman's point of view? You were fortunate enough to meet these three very interesting, candid young women--Elaheh, Hilda, and Laleh, the most political--who even sneak into Kevin's apartment at great risk to have conversations.
TS: You cant plan on that, and I didn't plan on it, but I have to point out once again that the producer of this film is a woman, my wife Sara. She was born here but her parents are Iranian. She, of course, influenced a lot of about this production, including the point of view that we're taking and the elements that we're focused on. It's really hard to make a documentary, and I asked her, "Are you cool with us doing this because this is going to take a few years?" As I said, if it was just going to be about basketball, she would have said, "No way. It's not interesting unless you can make it about more than that and use basketball to really get into the social fabric of the country." It's a really good opportunity to do that, with other characters rather than just the basketball player, and we were so blessed when these three women entered the film, because that gave us an opportunity to tell the story of the Iranian people through the eyes of women. I love that we made what could potentially be a jock film, about a guy playing a man's sport, and yet what the audience takes away from this film, overwhelmingly, is the story of these three women. Once I met them, I realized I had to find a way for them to like me enough to let me work with them, because it was clear that they would be great assets to the film.
DP: They certainly don't fit our stereotypes of completely suppressed Muslim women. They even wear jeans underneath their burqas, when theyre watching the basketball games.
TS: For the record, they're not burqa wearers--that's in Saudi Arabia. They wear hijabs. I'll never forget this one guy, at a big film festival, saying, "We've already seen all these women with their burqas." He was saying that the film was "a base-level introduction to Islamic society." But if you call it a base-level introduction, you should at least know the difference between a burqa and a hijab. I'm not saying this to knock you, but that is why a film like this is so important, because people always assume that they know the people --"they're Muslim, there's a little bit about Shiites, the other funny sect there, Sunnis, etc."--but you can't really know them until you meet them. That's why a story like this, where Kevin allows an audience to be with the Iranian people on an everyday--sometimes mundane, sometimes very substantial--basis, can be useful and benefit people.
DP: Kevin, were you open from the beginning to the women enlightening you? Or did it take a while for you to say, "Hey, they are more than just attractive women, they have a lot to say that I can learn from?" You seem very receptive.
KS: Obviously I had to put them through a testing phase, because I didn't know much about their culture. I'm a very curious guy, so I tried to figure out what these women were like. Because even I had prejudices with these women. Like what you guys are talking about in regard to what they wore? I didnt know what that was. We used to say they wear ninja suits--and stuff like that. I'd say that if I was living over there I'd have twelve wives. Because those were the kinds of stories we heard. So I had my own built-in prejudices, but then I said, I'm going to try to figure out a little more about these women. And the more I talked to them, the more I realized that these women were even smarter than my teammates. There was only one guy on my team who spoke English; these three women spoke English and French. All of them had very high degrees, even in chemical engineering. It was amazing that they had degrees and this intelligence, but they cant excel at the highest level there. If these women were in America, the sky's the limit.
TS: Wha'ts interesting is that more than fifty percent of college graduates in Iran are now women. That is actually a product of the Islamic Revolution. That's not to say that the Islamic Revolution was good in any way, but it definitely had some aspects that benefitted large parts of the society. However, there is also, of course, a weird contradiction with that. They give women that opportunity but then when they get that degree, they can't go any further. In regard to your asking Kevin if he was willing to let the three women open his mind--I think it's so evident that they achieved it, whether he was willing or not. Just that fact that when he came back home, he related differently to his girlfriend, who is now his wife.
DP: Kevin, did your learning from these women affect your relationship with your girlfriend so much that when you came back you finally proposed?
KS: Well, I had all that in mind before I met the women, really. Even though there was a struggle between the Iranian people and their government, you could see a second struggle between the women and the government. The women were fighting two wars, basically. It touched me more, being African American, because I heard stories about the Civil War in America, and I saw the movies about what African Americans had to fight in America, so I saw there was a parallel between their lives and mine. Just sixty years ago, my forefathers had to fight for our right to have equal opportunity. A struggle within a struggle. It really connected me.
DP: Did they connect to you because they understood the African American background?
KS: Definitely. One the reasons we got so close was that we kept explaining situations we had to each other; that's how we learned even more from each other. I wasn't just listening to their problems and telling them how to fix them, I was telling them my problems, too. We were just bouncing ideas back and forth, and the conversation became easy. These women didn't have the opportunity to speak to Iranian men in this way, I think it brought them the type of stimulation, not sexual but intelligent stimulation, that they were missing.
DP: I'm not sure if Till intended to show that there was something flirtatious between you and Elaheh, but at very least you had a strong connection. Did you expect her to eventually leave her parents and pursue acting in Tehran?
KS: I felt she was pretty enough, she was very intelligent--her English was very good--but they're so respectful to the father figure over there. They seek approval of the fathers and I didn't think he'd give it to her. So I knew she was not going.
TS: I want to add to what Kevin said about how his being African American bonded him with the women. They share the experience of being second-class citizens with Kevin's forefathers. It was so ironic to me to see that Kevin was connecting to these women at the same time the first African American president was elected after running in the Democratic primary against the first woman, Hillary Clinton, who had a legitimate shot at getting elected. That was an interesting mirror image of these people bonding.
DP: Kevin, you weren't as excited as the Iranians were about Obama being elected. You had a wait-and-see attitude.
KS: I was excited. Till came in when the celebration was going on. I started sitting down, thinking, everybody's going to love you now. I just put myself in the athletic mode, because Im an athlete. In the professional sports world, you should know that it's not what you did yesterday, it's what you're going to do for me from now on. When things start going bad, you're going to see the people come after you. So I said that going to happen to Obama, too, because even though you're cheering right now, that economy is not looking promising. You're going to be throwing stones.
DP: When you returned to play ball in Iran the next two years, had the people's attitude toward Obama changed because the US-Iranian relationship hadn't changed under Obama?
KS: I think they're still optimistic. It's not as heightened as it was when he became president and there was celebrating in the streets in Iran--even the doctor I used to go to was celebrating. That was really exciting to see, because it showed that Obama really broke a lot of barriers, worldwide.Elaheh
TS: You asked about the flirtatious moment between Kevin and Elaheh in the film, that everybody always asks about. I thought it was a really great to have cultural flirtation going on, and that was represented so well by Kevin and all of the three ladies, particularly Elaheh. When I make feature films, I always think of how I'm going to orchestrate my characters. You have the hero, the nemesis, the seduction and all of these things. In many ways, Kevin's journey is like a hero's journey, including having temptation for a guy who's away from his wife and around beautiful women for a couple of months. The fact that he didn't take advantage of that attention but used it more as an opportunity to grow, I thought was part of his growth. You don't always necessarily know what's happening with you as you grow. As personal growth happens you're not aware of it. But you can look back and see you grew.
KS (laughing): Till's just lucky because he got a lot of information the producer wouldn't have dreamed of writing. Everything just happened with perfect timing for the film. One of the biggest things is that I told him I didn't want my personal life in the film. I like to keep my personal life away from basketball; that's like my safe haven. He kept pinching me every month, saying, "I have to put this in." He'd show me and I'd say, "Alright, you can do that." So he got it all.
DP: Kevin, at the end of the movie we learn that you and your wife have had a baby girl and they you are the founder and president of Choices Basketball Associations, a non-profit youth league in US Virgin Islands. But I noticed that you still play.
KS: I'm retired now, I coach. I do play with the national team, but I only in the summer league when they need help. We won the gold medal in 2011.
DP: I read that you scored 28 points in one game against the Bahamas!
KS: I still got it!
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