Documentaries are tricky beasts – while true stories come with their very own special cinematic weight (especially the ones that would be deemed “too fake” or “too strange” in a narrative form, such as something like Bart Layton’s tremendous The Imposter), it’s often the very subjects of compelling stories that derail their respective films excitement or cohesion. Not everyone has the spark or charm to light up a big screen, no matter how interesting their real life experiences might be. A good story isn’t the only thing that a documentary needs – they also need a good subject.

Fortunately for Till Schauder and his The Iran Job, the filmmaker has Kevin Sheppard, one of the most instantly likable and effortlessly charismatic documentary subjects to hit the genre in quite some time. Schauder and his producer (and wife) Sara Nodjoumi conceived of the basic subject matter of The Iran Job before they found Sheppard – they wanted to use the experience of an American basketball player competing in Iran and for an Iranian team as a non-political entry point in shedding light on the embattled country. The pair searched for months and were almost ready to scrap the project when they found Sheppard, and how very lucky for them that they did, because it’s not only Sheppard’s personality that drives the emotion of the film, it’s also one of the major factors in The Iran Job‘s unexpected and surprisingly critical secondary storyline.

In 2008, Sheppard left his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands to play for the newest team in the Iranian Super League, A.S. Shiraz. While Sheppard had a promising college career, he never made it in the NBA, and his career has been spent as a journeyman, moving from team to team and country to country, with stops in Chile, Brazil, and Israel. Sheppard was understandably trepidacious, but he felt called to do something outside his comfort zone, so off he went. In Iran, Sheppard was only one of two foreign players allowed to join the team, and he was saddled with some hefty expectations – namely, that the team’s owner wanted the team to make the play-offs, the first new team to do so.

The Iran Job, however, is not just a film about sports (though Schauder uses clean and easy-to-understand graphics to make sense of the Super League and their rules, and all of the playing sequences are edited for maximum ease and accessibility) and it’s not one about about cultural confusion (though Sheppard has a good bit of fun learning new customs and introducing his own to his new friends), it’s a film about friendship. As an entry into the Iranian world, Schauder and Nodjoumi made a wise choice with sports, but they made an even better choice with Sheppard. Kevin makes friends with everyone. He’s naturally disarming and welcoming, and he finds a way to bond with people who he should have nothing in common with.

It is Sheppard’s natural ease at making friends that steers The Iran Job into its secondary storyline. Sheppard ultimately befriends three Iranian women, and as his understanding of their station in life expands, so too does their own perception of their lives. Hilda, Elaheh, and Laleh are all modern women who are not allowed to express themselves how they wish (from how they dress to what they do for work to who they associate with), and the introduction of both Kevin and the film into their lives are a catalyst for change (and a credit to their bravery and boldness).

The film winds on through Kevin’s season, but it ultimately culminates in the Iranian unrest after the contested re-election of Ahmedinajad and the rise and suppression of the Green Party. Unfortunately, as The Iran Job reaches these crucial moments, Kevin’s time in Iran ends, and so does ours. It’s a disappointing ending to an ultimately fulfilling film, and it will only leave viewers hungry for more.

The Upside: A charismatic and engaging lead to guide us through the story; the excitement of a sports doc; unexpected revelations and secondary stories that add weight to the story; kickass soundtrack.

The Downside: The film’s final third leaves a number of things dangling, and though some answers are given in pre-credit epilogues, The Iran Job ends just as the situation in Iran (which is still ongoing) really heats up, resulting in some build-up that doesn’t feel as if it goes anywhere.

On the Side: The film used a very successful Kickstarter campaign to drum up completion funds, though they are still in need of further cash to help get a wider release moving.

Grade: B

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