By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At first glance, "The Iran Job" is just another David and Goliath sports story.
But boiling beneath the surface of the new indie documentary that follows American basketball player Kevin Sheppard playing in Iran's league, is the socio-political turmoil seen in the country's uprising after the 2009 election.
"I wanted to make a film that gives an audience an opportunity to understand the culture better and also the political issues, the religious issues, the social issues," said the film's German-born director Till Schauder. "Sports is a perfect medium to do that cause you open people up."
The film was among 30 to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which ends on Sunday, and was screened before a varied crowd of sports fans, reality TV stars, Iranian scholars and other influential members of the city's large Iranian-American community.
Schauder spent a year filming the point guard in 2008 after he joined the roster of A. S. Shiraz, an expansion team in the Iranian Basketball Super League founded ten years earlier.
Sheppard's assignment was simple: take the team to the playoffs. After a dismal start and a televised trash can kicking incident that put Sheppard's job in jeopardy and led to a talk with the coach and some adjustments, Shiraz took off on a winning streak.
Along the way, the film shows Sheppard gaining some cultural perspectives when he strikes up an unlikely friendship with three young women, Elaheh, Hilda and Laleh, who would meet Sheppard in his apartment where they could safely criticize the government and the treatment of women.
"What's going on in Iran is bad enough, but for women it's even worse," Sheppard told Reuters about what he learned from the women. "The lack of freedom they have, (they have to) keep wearing the scarf, being half of a man in terms of voting."
Sheppard connected their struggle with Neda Agha-Soltan - the 26-year-old travel agent whose shooting death during the protests was captured on video and viewed by millions on the Internet - and with the civil rights movement in the U.S. during the 1960s.
"I realized that I've never been through what African-Americans went through with Dr. King, but I can only imagine it had to be something similar to this," said the Saint Croix-born 32-year-old who played in countries including Venezuela and Argentina before Iran.
But while the women struggled with their place in society and tensions were high between Washington and Tehran, Sheppard and Schauder said they personally witnessed little anti-American sentiment from ordinary Iranians.
Schauder, who holds dual U.S.-German citizenship and is married to Iranian-American co-producer Sara Nodjoumi, moved freely in and out of Iran while making the movie.
But on his last trip, days before Shiraz's big playoff game in 2009, the filmmaker said he was detained overnight, without explanation, on arrival at Tehran's international airport and sent back to New York the following day.
Now Shauder lives in Brooklyn, New York, and hopes to release "The Iran Job" in U.S. movie theaters later this year.
As for Sheppard, he has since retired and returned home to the U.S. Virgin Islands, he said his experience in Iran is never far from his mind. Lately, he said he has even noticed some similarities between Tehran and Washington.
"You can see it's just a group of people out there with a lot of money who're just trying to shape and shift peoples' minds," he said.
(Editing by Christine Kearney and Jill Serjeant)