Last week documentary film “Salaam Dunk” premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival. A colorful and eye-opening portrait of life in modern Iraq that focuses on the story of the woman’s basketball team at American University of Iraq Sulaimani, we thought it was well worth your time. But going to a dangerous area of the world to film a human interest story has its challenges, and we had the opportunity to sit down with ‘Dunk’ helmer David Fine, to talk more about making the film, the value of stopping for tea and the universality of the sports picture.
“Salaam Dunk” began when one of the eventual stars of the doc, Coach Ryan, presented the idea to Fine. The two had met through friends in college and always kept in touch, so when Ryan, a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, took two years off to teach in Iraq, it wasn’t long before he wrote to his filmmaker friend. “[Ryan] would write me these emails talking about some of the stories that he was hearing from some of the girls on the team and the contrast of the stories that he was hearing, and the way that he would describe how much they loved just being active and playing the game and learning it. I mean these are total beginners, you know? They just couldn’t get enough of it,” Fine said. “I think they understood their relative lack of experience, and they understood how difficult it is to pick up a sport when you’re twenty years old, but they came every day in sweltering heat and wore pants and in some cases head scarves and just loved it. So a couple emails and a Skype conversation later, it was obvious that this was a perfect opportunity to do the doc.”
“I think the intention from the beginning, the sort of thesis statement was to present western audiences, and people around the world, with a story and with images from this country that they’re not accustomed to,” Fine explained. However, while editing the project together, the filmmakers realized that, while they wanted to focus on the team and its players, they needed to include some back-story and context of what was happening around them. They sought to strike a balance between the violence and loss of many of the girls’ back-stories, but also the hope with which his subjects looked toward the future. “It became clear after we had been one or two full cuts into the film — and we didn’t have any of [their background] — that to really understand how special their opportunity to play basketball is, you had to understand the context of where they had been and where they were coming from…I do think that a story of hope, in some way has to include elements of moments where it seems like all hope is lost.”
Bringing with him a skeleton crew, Fine had six weeks to shoot the film. Wanting to capture as much footage as possible, he gave cameras to the team’s players to create video diaries. “I think what really helped was one, sort of gaining their trust in the sense that when they really came to believe that my intentions for the film were what they wanted the film to be as well, was to present this country in a different light. And once I had their trust that was my goal with the film, they were really open to helping out in a number of ways,” Fine said. “You know, not just talking to these cameras that we gave them but also helping us line up locations and doing some translating here and there for people in the community that we were talking to. So it definitely took a week or two before they really got into it and then once they did they would turn around the assignments pretty quickly.”
Also helping them navigate the Sulaimani scene was, in Fine’s opinion their most important hire, an Iraqi producer. Through a connection at AUIS, Fine was introduced to producer San Saravan, who is Kurdish, but has worked on films all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East and in addition to being a producer, had a knack for filming as well.
“He had sort of shown Ryan a lot of the country and they had become friends. When this became a reality Ryan said, yeah, you’re going to spend these six weeks with San, he’s going to be everywhere with you, he’s going to make this work…[and] it absolutely wouldn’t have worked without him. I was so frantic, like completely fucking frantic the entire time: ‘We’ve got to keep shooting, we’ve got to get more, we’ve got to get more,’ and San wanted to break for tea like every forty-five minutes to an hour, you know? Like ‘Let’s pop in for a tea.’ He’s got this hilarious English accent because he learned his English in the U.K., but speaks Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and we were just like okay, yep, we’re going to get a tea, we want you to stay happy and working with us, so whatever you need. By the end of it I was like, oh yeah this is why we’re getting tea because otherwise I’m going to go crazy out here. I need breaks. I was just trying to keep hammering. So he was not only a producer and our DP, but kind of my manager of sanity,” laughed Fine.
With Saravan on board and the help of the team, the production didn’t find itself hitting too many cultural blockades, but one thing that did surprise the director was the group decision-making process that the players’ went to their families for. “I guess when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen — I think like most American teenagers do — you’re sort of inclined to do the opposite of whatever your parents say. There’s such a deep respect for family there, that one of the things that was shocking to me, and it wasn’t really a hurdle, but one of the sort of checks that I had to get used to was, ‘Hey Leylan can we come to your house this afternoon and shoot a little bit?’ ‘Oh that’s short timing, I’m going to need to talk to my mom and dad and my brothers about that’ — so everything goes through family. Everything is sort of blessed by the parents and so, it wasn’t really a hurdle as much as we had a little more time to make some of the shooting opportunities happen with the girls because they’re so respectful of their family unit and making sure that everyone is in and supportive of decisions.”
Now, over a year after “Salaam Dunk” was filmed, the connection between Coach Ryan, Fine and the players remains strong. Both Ryan and Fine are once again living in the States, but have recently visited, and Fine was happy to report that this past season, the team went undefeated, “The team’s doing really well, they were undefeated this year, they’ve got more players then last year, five or six new girls have joined the team, Pat Kline was an assistant coach last year with Ryan and has since become the head coach.”
And for Fine, he looks forward to continue traveling the world to tell similar stories through his production company, Seedwell. The athletic angle is one he’d like to continue to explore, about the impact being on a sports team can have for anyone. “ [I’m] definitely interested in continuing on to tell other stories related to athletics. I’ve been an athlete all my life, I think it’s really hugely important and impactful as far as where I’m at now and who I am. Even on the day to day level, not to make it so grandiose, when I’m upset I got…you know I have to sweat, that makes me feel better. So while the film has a lot of themes that are specific to Iraq and the female experience, in that country, I think that the universal piece of it is the power of sports and you know, the kinds of lessons that you learn in becoming an athlete and that’s a story that I feel really comfortable telling and want to do more of.”