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The Iran Job

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I’m married to an Iranian woman. She’s smart, beautiful, and tough as nails (I may be a little biased in my assessment, but not much).

In 2007, a friend of ours — actually the fellow who married us — sent me an article about a handful of Americans who play professional basketball in Iran. At that time, we were already at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and it looked like Iran — or “I-ran” — would be next on the list, just as it does again, now. In the absence of diplomatic relations (we haven’t had an embassy in Tehran since 1979), I was immediately inspired by these athletes, who arguably do more to establish a dialogue between Iranians and Americans than any politician or cleric on either side.

I decided to make a film about one such player’s experience in Iran. More importantly, I convinced Sara, my Iranian wife, to help produce it. At that time we were newly-weds, living in a studio apartment in Manhattan, obviously with no kids. We thought it’d be fun to take a year off from our lives (that’s how long we thought it’d take) and make a movie about something that might end up being very relevant. Five years and two babies later, I can say that it took a little longer than expected. But the film seems as topical as ever.

At first we thought this would be a relatively easy film to put together. Then we learned that most of the players didn’t actually want to talk in front of a camera because some of them had faced severe fines – not from the Iranian side, as one might imagine, but from the U.S. State Department. The State Department argued that the players were breaking the embargo against Iran by making an income in the Islamic Republic. So instead of using these athletes as potential bridge-builders, the US was actually trying to discourage them from playing basketball altogether. Some players bent to the State Department’s pressure, but I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the guys who took a leap of faith (they’re basketball players, after all) and stayed.

Finding the right player — our hero who would take us on this cultural and political journey — proved more difficult than we thought. My background is in narrative feature films, where I’m used to casting the ideal talent: the person that seems best equipped to play the part. So I was picky, and Sara, who’s not at all interested in basketball at all, was even more so. We both wanted someone special, someone so charismatic that we’d want to make a film about him regardless of whether he played basketball in Iran or not.

After a year of research, several failed attempts with some promising players, and with thousands of dollars of our own money sunk into the project, we decided we couldn’t force the issue. If we didn’t have the subject, we couldn’t make the film. So, we decided to cancel the project.

But then, in the fall of 2008, shortly after Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called again for the destruction of Israel, we got on a Skype call with Kevin Sheppard, a point-guard from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Kevin was about to start a basketball contract in the Iranian Super League. A minute into the conversation he had us rolling on the floor laughing — in spite of the fact that he was getting ready to play basketball in a country supposedly full of nukes and terrorists. His easy-going personality convinced us to start filming immediately, even without a budget.

We’d found our hero. Kevin had the exact qualities we were looking for: curiosity, a disdain for self-censorship, and a disarming sense of humor. He was also very perceptive and an equal opportunity jokester; he made fun of Iranians and Americans alike. These traits created an opportunity to add humor, soul, and positive energy to a film that could otherwise fall into the trap of “another-Middle-Eastern-the-world-is-about-to-end” flick.

Originally the plan was for Sara and I to go as a two-person team. But when the journalist visas that we requested got denied, it became evident that we’d have to shoot the film under the radar. We decided it was safer if I went on my own, entering as a tourist with my German passport (I’m a dual German-U.S. citizen, and my German citizenship made it a lot easier to enter Iran). I packed a small HDV camera, a wireless mic, and one cable — all of it small enough to fit into an unassuming backpack. My thought (quite naïve, in hindsight) was that if I ever got into trouble, I could just say I was a German tourist filming the holy sites of Iran.

With these pretty basic tools, I documented Kevin’s first season in Iran. But the film quickly became about more than basketball. In my mind, basketball was always just a medium, an entry point that could allow “westerners” easy access to a narrative they might not otherwise care about. But using the sport as an entree, I wanted to delve deeper into the social fabric of Iran. When Kevin befriended the three young women that play such a big part in the film, I got a lot more than I ever expected. Thanks to these women, his apartment turned into an oasis of free speech, where they talked about everything from religion and politics, to women’s rights and gender roles. And then of course Barack Obama was elected and the Green Movement happened, which provided yet another unexpected story arc (you’ll know what I mean when you see the film).

As Kevin’s journey in Iran unfolded, and as I tried to capture as much of it as I possibly could, Sara was in Brooklyn writing grants to keep us afloat. She found foundations I had never even heard of (e.g. PARSA, and the Flora Foundation). The grants that Sara was able to get for the project provided just enough financing to keep us working — even without a commission from a network. Once we had a rough cut, Sara found a way to get it into Abigail Disney’s hands. Abby had produced the wonderful film “Pray The Devil Back to Hell,” amongst other great docs. She saw merit in our film. And she fell in love with the women portrayed in it – who are smart, beautiful, and tough as nail (ring a bell?). So, after two years of wrecking our credit, we’d finally found a committed Executive Producer in Abby, who we trusted creatively, and who enabled us to keep working.

I’m often asked what it was like shooting in Iran. The fact that I had very limited equipment and no crew definitely created certain technical challenges — mostly for sound, when all was said and done. But on the other hand, my DIY filmmaking process gave me extraordinary access that I wouldn’t have had with even a bare-bones crew. Since my equipment was so small, and since I was the only member of the filmmaking “team,” I literally became a fly on the wall.

Besides technical hurdles, my biggest challenge was avoiding the authorities as I was filming. Without a journalist visa I could’ve gotten in uncomfortable situations — as repeatedly evidenced by credentialed filmmakers and journalists who, papers be damned, are nonetheless arrested. Another challenge was getting the footage out of the country. I didn’t want to risk being searched at the airport with the hundreds of hours of tape that I brought home each time. In other countries, I would’ve simply shipped the footage back to New York, but in Iran that wasn’t possible. Once again the obstacle wasn’t presented by the Iran, but rather by the United States. Thanks to the embargo, U.S. customs doesn’t permit “media shipments” from Iran.

So, each time I left the country I hid what I thought were the five best tapes in my underwear, hoping I could get that footage out safely myself. I sent the rest to my mother in Germany, which has much better trade relations with Iran. My mother would then send the footage on to Brooklyn. Each time I sent a batch of footage to Germany I suddenly became religious, and quite devout, praying to God, or Allah, that the delivery service wouldn’t fail me.

I filmed Kevin in Iran over several visits, until on my last trip — in the run-up to Iran’s 2009 election — I was informed that I had finally made it onto a “black list” (for reasons still not clear to us), and was put in detention in a kind of “hotel-prison,” inside the glitzy new Tehran airport. Sara was at home — five months pregnant with our second child — while I was in Tehran, hand-shredding some not-so-cool-when-you’re-stuck-in-Iran-documents and flushing them down the toilet (e.g. my father-in-law’s satirical art, which is banned in Iran).

The detention room in Iran had a television, so I spent the night trying to find something to watch to ease my mind. But the television had only one channel, and it played a loop of the 1982 soccer world cup final between my native Germany and Italy — one of the most painful defeats our team ever suffered. I felt like I was being water-boarded. However, the following morning I was sent back to New York on an early plane — a stroke of luck, it turns out, considering the number of filmmakers and journalists recently arrested in Iran.

Having worked on the film over five years now, Sara and I are surprised — stunned actually — that the subject matters seems as timely now as when we began. But beyond everything, we’re delighted to finally bring The Iran Job to an audience this fall.

We’re financing the release through a Kickstarter campaign, and if anyone is interested in supporting us, we couldn’t appreciate it more. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/554272471/the-iran-job-bring-it-to-a-theater-near-you?ref=email

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