Seduced by the obvious, perhaps too obvious, dramatic possibilities inherent in placing a culturally insensitive American in Iran, filmmaker Till Schauder sets out in The Iran Job to chronicle Kevin Sheppard’s year abroad playing basketball for an Iranian league. Sheppard’s insensitivity isn’t malicious; it’s borne out of a place of default orientalism, naiveté, and misinformation. He’s shocked at Iranian women’s dress code and isn’t afraid to express his disapproval at a holiday ritual in which Iranians mourn collectively in the streets. And though there’s something refreshing, and disturbingly familiar, about Sheppard’s spontaneity, he’s certainly not the most interesting thing about the film.
It’s the Iranian girls who hang out at Sheppard’s apartment virtually every night, sipping his liquor and criticizing the government’s hijacking of Islam, who bring gravitas to the documentary—not when the film tries to use them as spokespeople for the poor condition of women’s lives in that country, but in the brief moments when we’re allowed to see their frustration not in the literality of their words, but in how their tone and facial expressions betray what they’re actually saying. In one of very few multidimensional scenes, one of Sheppard’s groupies, Elaheh, her face always impeccably made up, tells the camera, as she drives and texts, that her father wouldn’t let her be a movie star. She dreams of moving to Tehran with other girls to pursue this desire, and for a second the film scoffs at literality, embracing the nuance and uncertainty of daydreams. That’s all promptly interrupted by a phone call from Elaheh’s angry mother, hurrying her to go back home, calling her a bad girl. It’s a simple, unaccounted for moment that reveals much more about female predicament than, say, any of the title cards that more literally make the film’s points (one card describes a woman named Neda who was killed as she protested the Iranian election results).
It’s an odd thing when a filmmaker elects a subject matter and in the process finds those in the margin of the previously concocted narrative to be the ones that actually speak to us. And it’s symptomatic that Schauder doesn’t pick up on this beautiful failure. Although he devotes a lot of screen time to the Iranian girls, the film too often reads like an MTV-like video diary about a local sports celebrity whose unpreparedness for encountering foreignness is only matched by the cheesy hollowness of his concluding “this is what I’ve learned” remarks (he used to think of Iran as just camels and now he knows it’s full of gutsy women too). Ironically, and the film is completely blind to this, the dreams nurtured by Sheppard’s American girlfriend, who doesn’t make it to Iran, are much less ambitious than Elaheh’s, which lies somewhere between stardom and the ability to hang out at a man’s apartment without being beaten for it. The American girlfriend wants an engagement ring, and pronto.