Of the majority of images and video to be coming from Iraq right now, “Salaam Dunk” stands aside from the pack. Colorful, hopeful and charming, ‘Dunk’ follows a women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq — Sulaimani. We see their wins, their losses, what brought them to this team and how being a part of it has changed and shaped them, because for many of the girls it was the first time they had ever picked up a basketball, much less played on a sports team.
Led by Coach Ryan (an American graduate student teaching at the university) the documentary follows the team through their second season, as they continue to push themselves and each other. Through video diaries, interviews and footage from the team’s games and practices, director David Fine paints not just a portrait of the women on the team, but of modern life in a war-torn country and the new generation of young people coming out of it.
For many of the players, the move to the more peaceful northern region to attend AUIS was an escape, and the girls’ backgrounds are certainly not free from tragic losses and dangerous living conditions. Most came to Sulaimani with what family they had left, but must keep it a secret that they’re attending AUIS from friends back home. Laylan, a team captain, tells how on the trip northward from Baghdad, her brother was taken from their car and threatened to be shot – a heart-gripping moment for her family that turned out to be a joke from the guards at the checkpoint.
However, these glimpses of the past, and the challenges the past throws at them as women in the present are just that – glimpses. Peppered throughout the story, the girls mention these stories with hesitation and tell their hardships with an amount of stoicism that very much puts the more harrowing elements of their histories in the backseat. Thankfully, Fine doesn’t try to milk this side of their stories, instead he lets the drama unfold on the court, as the girls go up against much more experienced teams — who have players that are recruited and paid — and try their best to honor Coach Ryan with a win before he heads back to the States at the end of the season.
Certainly the term “loss” and the many ways and degrees to which one can experience such a thing come into play here, but what makes “Salaam Dunk” so accessible and at the same time successful is that the greatest drama lies in the loss, not of life or hope, but of games. The story of the team’s dedication, not only to the game, but their coach, provides enough stakes on its own, and truly gives us an opportunity to get to know the girls minus the burden of trying to explain or give a clear stance on the political upheaval that surrounds them in their country. Fine creates an excellent balance in his portrait, providing just enough context for the story, but not losing focus on what he came to say. As we learn more about the young women on the team and their role in the university, it builds to a very humanizing picture of young people in the region, trying to find their own identities amidst extraordinary changes happening in their society.
While lighter fare than we’ve seen coming out of the Middle East recently, “Salaam Dunk” is not a work to be dismissed. There is currently no release date set, but this is definitely one to seek out when it does reach theaters or if it pops up at a festival near you. We’ve posted the trailer from the Los Angeles Film Festival below. [A]