Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Detente: The Iran Job and Zaytoun

Kevin Sheppard and members of A.S. Shiraz in The Iran Job (2012)

Till Schauder's 2012 picture The Iran Job garnered the award for best documentary entry at this past weekend's Arlington International Film Festival in Massachusetts, and when you watch it you can see why. Schauder gains a rare and privileged look at Iranian life and culture through the most unlikely of perspectives: an American basketball player contracted to play one season for a new team in the country's Super League. The player would be Kevin Sheppard, a gregarious point-guard from St. Croix with an outsized personality and infectious reserve of energy. Having failed to make the NBA out of college, Sheppard followed the route of other athletes in the same position and played professionally in various points abroad. Then, in the fall of 2008, comes an offer from Iran, which (as the movie reminds us with a clip of George W. Bush's “Axis of Evil” speech) is just one of America's most strident opponents on the geopolitical landscape. But, unfazed by the two nations' frozen relationship, Kevin's soon on a plane from the Virgin Islands. The filmmakers follow him to his new digs in the city of Shiraz, where he's to play for the hometown heroes, A.S. Shiraz. And not just play for, but lead to success: he's been brought in (and paid double his Iranian teammates) to take the team out of the cellar where it sits and into the playoffs—something no new team in the league's ever done.

He's got his work cut out for him: his Iranian teammates got no game. They stink up the court so badly during the first scrimmage that a dumbfounded Kevin judges it the worst basketball he's ever participated in. He resolves to turn the team around, but that entails more than improving the Iranians' dribbling and shooting. It means changing their mindset from one that slavishly follows their coach's commands and nothing more, to the open-minded kind that allows for the quick-thinking, free-flowing, improvised play required of exciting basketball. So it is that this narrow narrative focus aptly contains the broader cultural conflict between Western secularization and Iranian theocratic Islam. For the movie's real story is off the court, where Sheppard navigates his way through the unfamiliar terrain of his host country.

Director Till Schauder
Schauder adopts a realist style for the film—no talking head interviews, slow pans of photos, or outside information. We get the story almost exclusively from Kevin's perspective, following him on his excursions through the city or viewing the goings on in his apartment. That's a wise choice, as he exudes such charisma and impulsiveness as to keep you endlessly entertained. Indeed, the movie's draw comes from seeing what happens when you throw a huge African American athlete with streetball lingo and no sense of personal boundaries into a sea of Persians, overburdened by a culture of decorum, tradition, and authoritarian regulation of bodily integrity. The results actually give you hope for humanity, as the Iranians take an instant liking to their unquiet American. Many episodes are downright hilarious, such as when Sheppard wanders into a small shop and the diminutive old man who runs the place exclaims, with a guilty grin, that he loves black people, visited Nashville, and smoked weed in America—all to Sheppard's delighted whoops. Or Kevin's determined mission to find an evergreen tree for the holiday his Afghan landlord thinks, hearing the word Christmas in his own tongue, is called “raisin.” Or the insane bro dance he does with his favorite order-out chicken delivery man.

It's this raw, contagious emotion that lets Sheppard overstep so many cultural taboos, as the Iranians can do nothing but smile. But other times it costs him. When he kicks a trash can on the sidelines after a bad defeat, for example, he suddenly finds himself denounced in the press and made to explain himself to a Super League administrator. Such rules this overgrown kid finds bizarre. But he develops a new understanding of the situation through the forbidden friendship he makes with three women. Elaheh, Laleh, and Hilda are fans of the team (Hilda works with Kevin's physical therapist) and of Kevin. His uninhibited spirit, individuality, and enterprise draw them—emblems of the Western freedoms these stifled women desire. In his apartment they find a sanctuary where they can literally let their hair down, removing the required hijab and speaking frankly with men in a relaxed, non-threatening environment. Sometimes these scenes verge on the mundane and begin to cross into an uninteresting mix of reality TV and Real World episode. But much of the talk is fascinating, especially when the women vent their frustrations over the stupidity and authoritarianism of their government. As he listens, Kevin grows in respect for these emerging feminists. Their interaction affords us more glimpses between a post- and pre-sexually revolutionized culture: In a clever sequence, Schauder gives us the beautiful Elaheh complaining about her parents' attempts to arrange her marriage to a man she doesn't love, then cuts to Kevin as he jokingly rebuffs his long-time American girlfriend's queries about a wedding date. He and Elaheh form a unique bond as they walk through the bazaars together at night. When she tells him it's illegal to kiss in public in Iran, he's flabbergasted. “But kissing's good!” he insists. “I know,” she hesitates as she searches for the non-existent rationale behind the law, “but it's...illegal.” In these moments, we feel them filling in each other a piece of the hole that their respective cultures have bequeathed them.

Kevin Sheppard and friends at Persepolis in The Iran Job

Kevin thus develops a broadened consciousness, and the movie's perspective follows his expanding horizon. We get larger shots of the cities and landscape of Iran, its mountains and skies. Some of the images are haunting—dozens of men moving during a nighttime religious festival in synchronized ritual self-abasement, firelight dancing off their faces. Or the shimmering landscape of Persepolis when Kevin visits with the women, seemingly hovering in a place out of time as traditional Persian music plays on the soundtrack. You find yourself staring in awe as you actually see, for a rare moment, a country you know only as a symbol. Sheppard's there during the build up to the presidential elections and Green Revolution, and—under his influence—his team's fortunes follow those of the surging reformers. The filmmakers don't push this conflation too far, fortunately, so that the movie doesn't veer into the territory of so many hokey sports movies. What you get instead—through the exhilarated faces of young boys in the bleachers cheering on their team; Kevin and a teammate sharing dating woes; tense basketball played to Iranian hip hop—is a sense of all we hold in common. Peace seems just a few well-placed friendships away.

You get the same feeling from watching Zaytoun, the narrative film made last year by director Eran Riklis (Cup Final, The Syrian Bride) and just released in select theaters. Set in 1982 Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, the movie follows the bond that forms between a Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp, Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), and an Israeli pilot named Yoni (Stephen Dorff) who’s taken captive when his fighter plane crashes during Israel’s military intervention in the conflict. The film opens grippingly with real footage from Israeli jets of aerial bombings before leaping into a long shot, done in a single take, of the scene on the street in Beirut. Fahed, who goes by Zico, is one of a group of boys operating as street vendors, and we see them hawk their wares amidst the bustling commotion of pedestrians and PLO paramilitary trucks as the fighters streak overhead. The boys are raucous and rowdy, like any group of young adolescents, and they push the envelope by playing outside the camp—Riklis follows them as they play soccer through the back alleys with more fast-paced editing. This filmmaking gives you both the feel of real life in this place while also establishing relationships quickly. We learn up front that the Lebanese resent the presence of the Palestinians, as the boys nearly dare to cross a street that Lebanese soldiers cover with machine gunfire.

Abdallah El Akal and Stephen Dorff in Zaytoun
The PLO forces the boys to practice military drill, but none of them takes it seriously. When Fahed returns home that night and tells his grandfather (a whimsical, whiskered man touchingly played by Tarik Kopty) that a commander made them stay late to train for the liberation of their homeland, the old man takes on a bemused air: “He couldn’t liberate a fart from his ass!” Kopty has a twinkle in his eye and wise smile that recalls Robin Williams’s grandfather (Alexander Beniaminov) in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, and there are several moments where Zaytoun achieves the touching tonal shifts that characterize Mazursky’s work. Fahed sits down that night with his grandfather to watch his father ritually spray water on the olive tree that comes from their ancestral home in Israel, and the film slows to linger on the tenderness of the familial intimacy. But it’s soon broken by another bombardment, and before you know it, Fahed’s mourning over his father’s bloody corpse. The believability of the sudden shift from love to grief all lies in El Akal's voice.

The loss of his father radicalizes Zico, and he’s training with new-found zeal at the PLO parade ground when he sees the Israeli jet go down. The PLO commanders leave the pilot under the guard of Fahed and his friends, and the mutual hostility is instant. The movie makes Yoni rather monstrous in the beginning, especially in contrast to the endearing antics of the boys, and that's when its sympathies start to show, to its own detriment. The movie's about how Yoni's and Fahed's hardened hearts melt, but initially it contrives too many ways for them (or rather, just Yoni) to find the humanity in the other and have compassion. When finally they do, they make a deal: Fahed agrees to free Yoni and guide him to the Israeli border in exchange for the pilot's helping him find his ancestral village once they're across. You feel that the movie's just taking off, when it almost goes off the rails. Riklis and screenwriter Nader Rizq add several scenes in which the pair must escape detection by soldiers, some of which descend into bang-bang shoot 'em movie schtick and others that have no discernible narrative or character purpose whatsoever. The former don't help Dorff's and El Akal's acting either, as they suddenly veer into the land of cartoonish action heroism and the film's look into that of artificial movie sets. I don't think they're to blame for these missteps, though, so much as the direction and writing. It's almost as if Rizq and Riklis couldn't decide what kind of movie they wanted to make, and made a momentary stab at an action thriller.

The movie you want to see, and sense is coming, finally arrives when the narrative gets away from these Houdini acts and homes in on the relationship between its two main characters as they wander south. Forced off the main roads, Yoni and Fahed take to the rough Lebanese countryside, and its here that the story finds its heart. It suddenly becomes a road movie, part of the peripatetic genre that uses the characters' exterior journey as a metaphor for their interior ones. Here, the road leads these enemies into each other's hearts, beginning in a tender moment when Zico dresses Yoni's gunshot wound by spraying it with alcohol the same way his father sprayed their tree—a tree he now carries with him on the way. The movie also becomes a coming-of-age story, as Fahed gets his first taste of the ways of men: driving, drinking, competing with an older male. Yoni tutors him in these ways, taking a liking to the boy and letting him sport his fly boy aviator glasses. Dorff's performance really comes through at this point, as the script softens his character into a more human form. Part of it must have something to do with playing opposite a child actor, for as he did with Elle Fanning in Somewhere, Dorff draws a sympathetic interior life out of subtle of interactions with El Akal. The latter, too, earns your love when he's allowed to behave as a real boy would. Their intimacy begins to take on the adopted father-son endearment that you find between William Hurt and Chris Miles in Chris Menges's 1994 Second Best.

At one point the pair commandeer a donkey to bear them south, and Fahed jokes that Yoni came into Lebanon on an “American F-16” and goes out on a “Palestinian F-16.” When the boy thanks the animal later with a whispered blessing and soft touch of the snout, your heart melts, El Akal's gesture is so genuine. That moment comes in the briefest of shots, and the last part of the movie contains many of them. Indeed, you want the film would slow down, let these moments of connection breathe, allow the burgeoning love between Yoni and Fahed to expand, the revelations of their humanity to attain deeper impact. Riklis earns these soft interludes but keeps leaping away from their profound potential. You find yourself wishing he hadn't wasted so much time earlier on the melodramatic bunk. As it is, you're given cinematic flashes flushed with a kind of plenitude: Fahed spinning softly in his ancestral home; he and Yoni sleeping next to a valley under a starry sky; the softest of embraces they share when the realities of a harsh world interrupt the more forgiving one they've made. If tied to a fuller script, such scenes could have made for a truly heartbreaking movie. They still go down as some of the more tender, human moments I've seen on screen this year. And as with The Iran Job, they leave you with the felt knowledge of all that brings us together, and so much of what drives us apart.

Nick Coccoma lives and writes in Boston, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theater, philosophy, and religion at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College.

1 comment:

  1. Great review of Iran Job by an insightful and experienced critic!