The documentary The Iran Job and its story of an American basketball player who plays in Iran, is raising global eyebrows.
Funded primarily by the internet through Kickstarter, the film premiered enthusiastically at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year and never turned back.
The film’s husband and wife tandem, German-American director Till Schauder and Iranian-American producer Sara Nodjoumi spoke to Kenai Andrews recently from Brooklyn, New York.
And they’re coming to Toronto.
The Iran Job made its Toronto premiere Nov. 14, 2012 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St. West, Toronto.
THE IRAN JOB’S TILL SCHAUDER AND SARA NODJOUMI
MMA Crossfire: This is an impressive documentary on several levels.
Till Schauder: Thank you.
Sara Nodjoumi: Thank you.
MMA Crossfire: It must have been difficult in terms of getting the footage out of the country.
Till Schauder: Yes, that was not so easy because usually in those circumstances when you shoot somewhere abroad you just sort of ship it or make a security doc or something like that and I didn’t really have time for these things. I didn’t want to risk making a dub inside Iran because I didn’t know what they would do with the footage if I went to let’s say a post-production facility. I also couldn’t ship it because of the embargo that the U.S. has imposed on Iran, where they don’t accept shipments of large amounts. I’m a dual U.S.-German citizen so what I then did is that I figured out is that Germans and Iranians have a much better relationship trade-wise. So I was able to DHL it to my mother in Germany, who would then send it on to Sara in Brooklyn. That was always a very anxious few days in which I sometimes became very religious all of a sudden.
MMA Crossfire: (Laughs). Good ol’ DHL Express.
Till Schauder: Good ol’ DHL Express, exactly.
MMA Crossfire: It’s interesting that this documentary was funded in a large part by Kickstarter.
Till Schauder: That’s right. In fact, we just finished our second Kickstarter a few days ago. That’s true. We’ve had overwhelming success with it. We completed our first in January, which was one of the most successful Kickstarters ever for a film. And then we did another one just now. It’s an amazing tool for filmmakers.
MMA Crossfire: Why do you think so many people contributed?
Sara Nodjoumi: I think in our case, people were really excited to see an entertaining, fun, light, funny film from Iran. I also think it sparked a fire under the sort of younger Iranian-American that normally doesn’t seek out documentaries or films on Iran even because they just don’t relate to them in that way. And there’s the basketball element, and the hip-hop element and so I think altogether we were able to reach a lot of different audiences with the film. As soon as you can get people to laugh, they’re touched by it.
Till Schauder: I think what made people gravitate to it is that we’re portraying a different side of Iranians, something that has resonated all over the world, not just with Iranian Americans here. Our biggest pledger is a Lebanese guy who lives in the Middle East. Not Lebanon, but another country. He gave $10,000 USD. This is somebody we didn’t know; one late night we just realized that Kickstarter went up by $10,000. He’s done that twice now; for the first and second campaign. And there were various other people from all kinds of different countries including a lot from Canada by the way who rallied around us. That was fascinating to experience. You really feel a common interest. So many different people in so many different places of the world. It doesn’t matter whether if it’s $10,000 or $10 from somebody who is not so well off. It’s the spirit behind it. It’s really incredible. I think people are pretty much not interested in military conflict anymore. They’ve seen enough of this and this film really shows a different approach to how to resolve differences. That’s why we had such success.
MMA Crossfire: So you’re going to show Toronto some love soon.
Till Schauder: Well, we’re coming to Toronto Nov. 14th, as you know.That came about sort of through the Kickstarter as well, where they pledged for community screening. So they’re bringing us up here, and we look forward to it. It’s interesting because I’ve given a couple of Canadian interviews including one on CBC I think a week ago. Since then, we’ve gotten quite a few inquiries on Facebook and through our website from Canada. We also had a successful showing at the Vancouver Film Festival a few weeks ago. Same thing. A lot of requests for screenings, so I think Canadians in particular – they ‘get’ this project somehow. So we’re excited to go to Toronto.
MMA Crossfire: Talk to me about putting the documentary together as a husband and wife team.
The Iran Job’s director Till Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi. Image courtesy Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images North America)
Till Schauder: Ask our kids about that.
MMA Crossfire: (Laughs). Well, they’re in bed now.
Sara Nodjoumi: You know, that’s a good question. It also depends on the day you ask it; the type of answer you’ll get.
MMA Crossfire: (Laughs).
Sara Nodjoumi: It was definitely quite a challenge. I don’t know it would necessarily be so daunting when we first set out to do it. The upside is you don’t ever have to stop talking about it.
Till Schauder: Also the downside…
Sara Nodjoumi: (Laughs). It’s the pro and the con. When you celebrate, you can just really celebrate with each together and you get it because you were in the trenches together fighting. But then on the other hand when things are hard and you’re hitting a big roadblock, it can certainly be difficult. You’re not thinking about anything else, you’re not talking about anybody else. Your partner can’t tell you a funny story about their day at work because there is none (Laughs).
Till Schauder: It’s a double-edged sword. I think by-and-large we’ve managed to do well. We’ve seen couples who’ve had a much harder time. It’s actually not as uncommon as one might think. I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend it to other people. It really depends on the makeup of the relationship, but we’re getting through it and I think the fun moments outweigh the difficult times.
Sara Nodjoumi: I have to agree with him.
MMA Crossfire: A labour of love.
Till Schauder: Quite literally.
MMA Crossfire: How long did it take to put everything together?
Till Schauder: Well, from the very first research trip to the release of the film it was five years. But I have to say that between the first research trip and the first day of real production, was l already one year that went by. You can be nit-picky and say it was four years, but it was on our desk for five.
MMA Crossfire: And it premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Till Schauder: That’s right.It was quite amazing. They scheduled two screenings like they do for all films and they added a third one because of popular demand. Both of them completely sold out. The same thing happened in Vancouver recently. Three screenings were scheduled and they added a fourth one. It was amazing in LA. We actually brought Kevin [Sheppard] for one or two of the screenings and I’ve never seen anything like it. We didn’t tell the audience he would be there and then we called him up afterwards for the Q&A and he got a standing ovation. I couldn’t quite believe him. It was a perfect way to launch this film.
MMA Crossfire: You shelved the project at one point because you weren’t able to find the right player and then Kevin came along. What was it about Kevin that made you choose him.
Till Schauder: Well I’d like to think it comes across in the film. He’s a pretty extraordinary individual. Basically he had us laughing within twenty seconds of our conversation. Not only a guy with a good sense of humor but he’s also very smart. What attracted me most is that he’s not somebody who censures himself. So he’s not somebody who will tell you things he may think you like. For example, he never tried to sell himself to me, he was exactly how he was. That means he would make fun of Iranians, which to me was important; not to have some do-gooder guy who just tries to say the right thing. He would also make fun of Americans. He’s an equal-opportunity jokester and I like that about him. We really needed somebody who would not censure himself.
Sara Nodjoumi: We needed somebody who could carry the film no matter what he was doing. If he could play basketball in Iran, then that’s great but the basketball had to be secondary even though that was the initial spark of the film. Someone would be interesting no matter where he was.
Till Schauder: And that’s where it was great to have a woman as the producer, my wife. She couldn’t care less about basketball …
Sara Nodjoumi: Not that all women care less about basketball…
Till Schauder: This particular woman couldn’t care less about basketball. She would always say, ’We really have to find somebody who will entertain me,’ meaning basically the broad audience and not just basketball fans.
MMA Crossfire: Till, you were a fly on the wall while doing the filming. What camera did you use to get most of the footage?
Till Schauder: I should be getting paid for the product placement here (Laughs). It was the Sony Z100, which is a tape-based camera. It’s not used much anymore although I still like it. HDV (High Definition Video) basically.
MMA Crossfire: I see. It was fascinating because as you said it’s not a side of Iran a lot of us here get to see.
Till Schauder: Yeah. I think at the end of the day, probably the biggest motivation behind this film is to show it to a western audience because the amount of misinformation is mind-boggling, not just in America but in almost any western country. Even when you go to Europe or Canada, people say very crude things about Iran. When I first went to Iran that was the first thing that struck me; how much Iranians actually like Americans and how different their everyday life is from our idea. From the music that they listen to, to the way they party and socialize and don’t just walk around in headscarves.
MMA Crossfire: Fascinating. So you are the hoops fan in the family Till.
Till Schauder: Yeah, I am. I grew up playing basketball myself. I was in Germany and one of my first teammates when I was 10 was an Iranian. He was a point guard, like Kevin. I’ve always been a basketball fan and there’s been a thread with Persians in my life early on.
MMA Crossfire: The attention to detail with the hip-hop music was agreeable.
Till Schauder: That was one of the first things and possibly the only thing that was very clear to me from the get-go before I knew who my character was is that I wanted this kind of music. Because on the first research trip I took, I was surprised to see that all these young basketball kids that I was driving in cars with were listening to this kind of music. And that was surprising on two levels. One, I was under the impression it was illegal (in Iran) to even produce this type of music, which it is, and that people listen to it, but also how just good it is. Sometimes you go to places and they this kind of music but it’s very cheesy or what not, but this was really well produced and from the soul. It was kind of like how rap used to be in America 20 or 30 years ago. Just soulful. I felt immediately this is the type of soundtrack we need to have. Nothing quite expresses of a generation in the way that music does. And again, when they think of Persian music, they have all kind of ideas, but certainly not rap or hip-hop. That was very important to have represented in the film.
Sara Nodjoumi: The hip-hop songs that are used in the film are existing songs from five or six different Iranian artists who live in Iran.
MMA Crossfire: Will there be a music soundtrack for the film?
Sara Nodjoumi: Not yet. We’re working on it, but it’s complicated (Laughs).
MMA Crossfire: If somebody came to you and told you they were thinking about doing a similar project, what advice would you give them?
Till Schauder: I would tell them that they really need to find a character and a subject that is going to fascinate them for the long run because making a documentary is not a quick process. You really have to sort of ask yourself, ‘Is there something better I can do with my life?’ And say yes to that, then you can go ahead and make that film. It’s really something you can do only if you’re completely committed and fascinated by it. Otherwise, it’s too much work, too much effort and obstacles, and that’s something a lot of documentary filmmakers will tell you. If you feel like you’ve found that subject, then it’s about not letting up and forgetting why you started it in the first place. Like we always tell our kids, you can’t go around it, you can’t go over it, you gotta go through it. Gotta just get through it somehow.
MMA Crossfire: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Is there anything you wanted to talk about before we go?
Till Schauder: We’re just excited to come to Toronto and we’re actually hoping some sort of distribution will happen in Canada because there seems to be a lot of interest. So that will be great and hopefully this Toronto screening can contribute towards that.
MMA Crossfire: You have distribution in other parts of the world?
Till Schauder: Right now, it’s just in the U.S. We have now a distribution offer in Germany, where it will be shown theatrically next year. And then we have interest from Japan and some other countries, but it needs to be solidified. That’s why I’m saying if a real theatrical opportunity came about in Canada I think it would be fantastic, especially given the large Iranian-American communities in Toronto, Vancouver and other parts of the country.
MMA Crossfire: I see. What are you working on next?
Till Schauder: There is a project I would really like to pursue about a Jewish-American ice hockey whose great-grandparents were German Jews and they were killed by the Nazis. And somebody got way from the concentration camps and escaped to America so this guy is able to grown up here as an American Jew. He’s a decent player but not good enough for the NHL but he gets a gig in Germany in their league. So the Germans say, ‘You’re a pretty good player. You should play in our national team. Because we killed your ancestors, you’re basically German. They give him a passport. So you have this Jewish guy representing Germany even though his ancestors were killed by the Nazis. This would be again an opportunity to talk about reconciliation and breaking taboos through an athlete.
The only problem is I haven’t quite cracked that athlete yet. He’s a little hesitant to do it. So I hope he gets to see The Iran Job at some point and changes his mind.
MMA Crossfire: A pleasure talking to both of you today.
Sara Nodjoumi: Thank you so much Kenai and see you in Toronto.
Till Schauder: Thanks Kenai.
The Iran Job made its Toronto premiere Nov. 14th, 2012 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.