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“I’m no longer allowed in the country!”

The Berlinale may be over, but there's still controversial film coming to Berlin. In "The Iran Job" (opening Feb 21), Till Schauder follows an African American basketball player all the way to Shiraz, Iran – and gets blacklisted.

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In “The Iran Job”, Till Schauder follows an African American basketball player all the way to Shiraz, Iran – and gets blacklisted.

German viewers may recall Schauder as the prize-winning director of (and actor in) Santa Smokes, a mini-budget Christmas comedy set in New York and released in 2002. In The Iran Job, the German-American director comes of age in terms of ambition, scope and relevance, providing an inside view of a society regarded as impenetrable.

What got you interested in basketball player Kevin Sheppard?

I read an article about Americans playing in Iran and was immediately struck by the potential for a story, but I didn’t have a character. I took a research trip to Iran and made some contacts with coaches and players there, and I put them in touch with my wife Sarah, who speaks Farsi. After a year, we got a call from Shiraz saying, “We signed this guy Kevin, would you like to meet him?” This was shortly before Christmas. We’d just moved to a new apartment, everything was really cosy, but I said, “Let’s give this one more try.” So I went there and met him and two hours later I phoned my wife and said: “I’m not coming back anytime soon.”

How difficult was it to film in Iran?

Nothing about this project was easy. To get the shooting permit, we had to go through the Iranian Mission at the UN here in New York. At first, they seemed pretty supportive of the idea. Then all of a sudden they called us and said: “This project is garbage. Who knows what you want to do there? You will not get permission.” Now it was clear we couldn’t risk bringing a bunch of people over there and getting arrested. Because I have dual citizenship – American and German – we decided I should go on my own and kinda shoot the film under the radar. I brought one little backpack with a very tiny camera, a cable and a wireless mic. The idea was that if I ever got into trouble I would tell them that I was a tourist from Germany shooting the sights. But because I was very unobtrusive, people really trusted me very quickly.

How long did you stay?

The longest I could stay in one chunk was four weeks. I did that a couple of times, and then I did shorter trips too. On my last trip there I was detained, actually. I was taken into this room and they said “You’re on a blacklist.” I was luckily sent back the next day. They could have also kept me there. Now I’m no longer allowed into the country.

You show Iranian women without their scarves, preparing for prayer… will they suffer any consequences?

We hope not. Two of the women are no longer in Iran. They both had plans to study abroad anyway. But one is still in Iran and is definitely a concern of ours. We know that she has been questioned a few times because of the film, as have several players at the sports club. Dealing with the women was definitely the hardest thing in the film, but the more they understood what we were trying to achieve, the more open they became. We became very close. When we launched our first Kickstarter campaign, I showed each of the girls a finished trailer and I said: “This thing might go viral, are you OK with this?” And they all said yes. What I heard from advisors is that it’s really important people know about the film, because the publicity is actually good for the girls, potentially helping to protect them.

You show a couple of shopkeepers in Shiraz who are very positive about the US. Did you come across this a lot?

That’s one of the things that surprised me and Kevin the most. There’s actually a pretty long tradition of American-Iranian exchange. Many Iranians remember Americans quite fondly. If you ask them, “What’s your opinion of Americans?” you get amazing approval ratings, you know, 60-70 percent.

What did you think of Argo?

I haven’t seen it yet, but just from reading about it I’ll say that I find it unhelpful because it reinforces the stereotype and the cliché. I’ve heard many great things about the film – mostly from people who are not sensitive to Iran or Iranian issues.

The Iran Job starts February 21. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.