Shot in Northern Iraq in 2010, David Fine’s Salaam Dunk follows the women’s basketball team from the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani (AUIS) through their second season. A title card—these pop up with annoying frequency in the beginning, but soon thin out—informs us that the team lost every game its first year, but “this season will be different.” But this is no triumphal sport doc about an underdog team coming from behind to sweep a title. In fact, though we hear a lot about how much several of the players love the sport and how much they’re all improving (none had ever played organized sports of any kind before they joined the team, and some turned up for the first practice in high heels), none of them look very good. As even their sweetly supportive American coach, Ryan, puts it, “This is not U Conn.”
Instead, the never-seen filmmakers tag along to each of the team’s five sparsely attended games, interspersing footage of the bus rides there and back and the games themselves with video-diary excerpts from some of the girls, interviews with their coach and some of their relatives, and an apparently random smattering of man-on-the-street interviews about the notion of women playing sports (about half are in favor and half are opposed). On its deceptively casual surface, Salaam Dunk is a genial high-five to team sport as a route to girl power and a sense of community. But it’s also a respectful and sometimes quite moving tribute to the resilience of a handful of young women who have, as Ryan puts it, “been through more in the last three years than any of us who came here to work with them from the West will be through in a lifetime.”
The five or six team members we learn most about seem a lot like their U.S. counterparts but younger, their lack of seen-it-all ironic detachment making them look more like high school than college students to an American eye. That relative openness makes it easy to empathize as they confide their feelings or recount their experience in the video-diary excerpts, dance to their favorite pop song after a rare win, or lean on each other’s shoulders on the bus ride home from a game.
Their relationship with Ryan (“He’s like a big brother,” says team captain Laylan) is also developed nicely, building up to an affecting group hug after the team’s last game together. Even sadder than the tears nearly everyone sheds, including Ryan, is the look on Laylan’s face as she stands off to the side, hugging herself forlornly. By then, we’ve heard her talk about some terrible things she’s experienced since the U.S. invasion, and we know she reacts to her losses by refusing to cry. We’ve also heard her say how much she dreads losing her beloved coach, who’s about to head back to the States to finish graduate school. But the tension in her face and the stiffness with which she rebuffs Ryan’s attempt at a hug say more than all those words put together about the grief this 20-year-old is holding in and the effort it takes to contain it.
This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 14 – 28. For more information, click here.