German-American director Till Schauder spent five years following Kevin Sheppard, 33, a former American college basketball player who went to Iran to play as a journeyman athlete. The result, the documentary The Iran Job, is currently playing in Los Angeles and opens in New York City on Oct. 12. Despite the reservations expressed by his family back home and the heavy expectation that he would lead his team to the playoffs, Sheppard moved from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to the city of Shiraz—where he quickly formed friendships with his teammates and local female fans. Schauder also had to overcome his fair share of obstacles to get the movie made. He spoke to TIME about filming covertly in Iran, making his first documentary and what sports can teach us about the world.
TIME: You’ve made some feature films before, like Santa Smokes, but The Iran Job was your first documentary. How did you decide to make the switch from fiction films?
Till Schauder: Every time I traveled to film festivals and flipped through the catalog, I found myself a lot more interested in the documentaries. Life just writes the better story. It’s a cliché but it seems to be true. So then I decided I wanted to try this, even though I’d never done it and some of my filmmaker friends had told me that it’s a very long, arduous process. With that in mind, I just wanted to find a character or a topic that would really fascinate me over a period of years. With The Iran Job, that’s exactly what happened.
How did you find Kevin Sheppard?
My wife, Sara Nodjoumi, who’s also a producer on the film, is Iranian-American and she was always our liaison with coaches and scouts in Iran, because she speaks Farsi. Out of the blue, at a point when we were ready to cancel the project because we couldn’t find a character, she got a call from the scout at A.S. Shiraz, saying they had just signed Kevin. She arranged a Skype call and I was sold immediately, after 10 seconds. I think the thing I liked most about him is that he didn’t have a sense of self-censorship. That’s important to me because I didn’t want somebody who says the things that he thinks an American audience wants to hear, or I want to hear.
Are you a basketball fan?
I am. I just remember that one of my first Iranian friends was actually a kid that I played on a team with in Germany. He was a point guard.
It seems like you knew that you needed someone unguarded as your main character, but were there any documentary techniques that you had already started?
That was the fun part of it—I can say that now in retrospect. In filmmaking, you never stop learning. With a documentary, my first one especially, creating a circumstance where people would behave and act and talk in a way that would be good for a film is not easy. I wasted at least 20 hours of footage just learning how that’s done.
Was there a moment where you thought, “I get it”?
In the editing process!
When you met the women who feature in the movie, how and when did you know they would be so important to the story?
I knew the minute they walked in. I had no idea they were coming and they didn’t know I was coming, which is classic Kevin. He could have prepared both sides but he just figured, “Let’s see what unfolds.” He was kind of turning the tables. I knew right away they would become important; I was just hoping there would be a way to include them. I think we both took a bit of a chance. They didn’t really know me as a filmmaker and I never knew if they would eventually grant me permission to use all of the footage. I really needed them to see it and endorse it, from a moral standpoint.
Tell me about some of the challenges of filming in Iran.
In my case the biggest challenge was that I didn’t have a journalist’s visa. Because of that, we decided that I should go on my own. Originally the idea was that we would bring a crew—or at least Sara, as a producer, but maybe a third or fourth person like it’s usually done on docs. Because of the lack of proper documents I had no choice but to do it under the radar, and luckily I have dual citizenship, German and American. It also meant that I had to really reduce my equipment to the bare minimum. Then the biggest thing was just not to get caught.
But you did end up in custody at some point.
I did, but that wasn’t as I was shooting, it was as I was trying to enter on what became my last trip there. I went through Tehran trying to get to the basketball season final, the last game, and at the airport they swiped my passport and right away said, “You’re on a blacklist.” I spent one night there—that was a little uncomfortable, just not knowing what was going to happen next—but for some reason they let me use my cellphone and I was able to call my wife and also organize a local shooter in Tehran who I had befriended on my previous trips to shoot the game that I would miss. I was always hoping that somehow it would get resolved and I could stay, so at that time I was naively annoyed from a filmmaking standpoint. Now in retrospect I’m just very glad that they let me out.
Was the basketball league okay with having you around?
The club, Shiraz, where Kevin played, is one of the few clubs in Iran that’s privately owned; most of the other clubs have some sort of ministry as a sponsor, including, for example, the Ministry of Defense. In those clubs the culture is very different and they probably wouldn’t have let me do what I did, but Shiraz had an owner who was completely behind the whole idea and was extremely accommodating. That also helped with all the other teams.
Any sticky situations?
There was a situation where all of a sudden women were no longer allowed in the arena in Shiraz. There was a lot of commotion in front of the gym in Shiraz and women arguing with the guards, and those guards were not from the club, they were local authorities. The authorities took me into a back room and wanted to look at the footage. On the way in there I just rewound it to a few minutes before. I had been in Persepolis and I knew I had tourist-y type footage, so they saw that and gave me my camera back.
You’ve said that your intended audience is a mainstream Western one, to shed light on the people of Iran, but what was the reaction when you screened the film at Noor, an Iranian film festival in Los Angeles?
I wasn’t there for that. My wife represented us. From what I’m told, the reaction was really positive. I have seen Iranian audiences myself at other screenings, including at the Los Angeles Film Festival where we world premiered. I was a little scared because I know they know their country and their culture intimately, so it was important for me that they would endorse the film, and they did. In fact, the Iranian-American community is hugely supportive of it.
What are you working on next?
We’ve actually gotten some interest from producers in turning The Iran Job into a feature film, using Kevin’s story to write a script and cast it with actors. I’m also working on another documentary project, about an American Jew who’s an ice-hockey player [who ends up playing hockey for Germany,] representing Germany on the national stage—his great-grandfather was killed by the Nazis in Germany. I think it would be another opportunity to tell a film through an athlete about reconciliation.