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Meet the 2011 LA Film Festival Filmmakers | “Salaam Dunk” Director David Fine

Meet the 2011 LA Film Festival Filmmakers | "Salaam Dunk" Director David Fine

Basketball is much more than a game in David Fine’s stirring documentary about an Iraqi women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq—Sulaimani in Kurdistan. For the young women on the team, most of whom have never touched a basketball or been allowed to play any sport, it is a blissful release from the realities of a war-torn nation. They come from all ethnicities and sects—Iraqi, Kurd, Shiite, Sunni—but the joy they discover in playing and the deep love they come to feel for the young American man who coaches them reveals an Iraq united in a way we’ve never seen before. [Synopsis courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Narrative Feature and Documentary Competition at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published daily through the beginning of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, which starts June 16. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Salaam Dunk”
Documentary Competition
Directed By: David Fine
Executive Producers: Peter Furia, Beau Lewis
Producers: San Saravan, Peter Friedrich
Cinematographer: San Saravan
Editor: David Fine

Responses courtesy of “Salaam Dunk” director David Fine.

Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?

Women’s basketball in Iraq… One team. One season. One Iraq.

OK: Now tell us what it’s really about…

Two years ago, most of the women on the basketball team at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) had never been running before. Many had never played sports. None had ever been on a team with other women. They came from all corners of Iraq to attend this prestigious school, but many could not tell their families back home that they were going to an “American” university.

Through traditional interviews and private confessional video diaries, “Salaam Dunk” follows the ethnically diverse AUIS women’s basketball team as they discover what it means to be athletes. From the joy of their first win to the pain of losing the coach who started their team, the film gives a glimpse into an Iraq we don’t see on the news.

Merging film with sports…

I’m originally from Seattle, where there were good family, ritzy private schools, juvenile keg parties in the rain and parents who put education above all else. Sports have always been a big part of my life (I played lacrosse in high school and college). When I went to college (Wesleyan University) I got interested in film and it became my major. My senior thesis was about a youth hockey team in Connecticut. Originally I wanted to make a funny documentary about crazy soccer moms, but in Connecticut, the crazy parents are all at the ice rink. The questions came naturally and I could relate to the players and parents as an athlete.

After graduating, I spent four years working in Los Angeles. Then in 2007, I moved to San Francisco and started a production company (Seedwell) with two of my oldest friends. Making movies for me is about challenging people to look differently at something they think they know. I’ve always gravitated toward documentary for a few reasons. 1) I like the idea that I can give voice to those who otherwise would not be heard. 2) If I followed the adage “write what you know,” my narrative would probably be quite boring, predictable and full of misplaced teenage angst (Dr. Dre on repeat for a few years there…). And 3} I’ve never had the money to shoot a narrative.

Changing how we see Iraq…

I think that people in ‘”the west,”‘ especially the United States, need to begin to look at Iraq differently. We will only perpetuate the unfortunate aspects of the country if we continue to see and talk about Iraq the way our mainstream news media portrays it. Americans need to see Iraqi people as human beings. I think we need to see Iraq differently in order to help Iraq change and grow and prosper.

I didn’t want to make something about the war or occupation. That’s been done and I think we’ve seen enough of it. What hasn’t been done is a film about the humanism of the Iraqi people that makes you laugh, cry and walk away feeling better than when you sat down. That was the goal.

Working with the team…

I was quite worried that the girls on the team would not open up to me, that we would not connect. I’m a white male from the USA. Before going, I figured I wouldn’t be able to rely on traditional interviews alone to get the content and stories needed for the film. So, in addition to traditional interviews, we gave the main characters flip cameras with a list of questions to answer and discuss. We called them “assignments,” hoping the girls would do them as they would a piece of homework. The footage that came back was fantastic and is a huge part of the film.

By the end of our time in Iraq, the girls became good friends. I am actually writing this from Sulaiman, where we just got finished showing the film to the team earlier today. Needless to say, I was quite nervous about how they would receive the movie. They loved it and are so excited for people in the U.S. to see it. After watching the film together, we proceeded to have a fantastic day complete with 20 pounds of biryani, multiple pots of dolmas and some extremely energetic Kurdish line dancing. These kids are amazing.

How will audiences respond?

The team is not good at basketball. In fact they are total beginners. Most of the girls had never played any kind of sport before joining the team. I think audiences will be struck by the degree to which these girls love to play basketball (despite being relatively bad at it). Basketball represents a new opportunity for them, a chance to prove they are capable and, for many, to finally have “their own thing.” They love to play, they want to win and their energy and love for the game is absolutely infectious.

Check out these prior participants in the Los Angles Film Festival, courtesy of SnagFilms [Disclaimer: SnagFilms is indiewire’s parent company]
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