The jokey title is just about the only thing that’s questionable about David Fine’s “Salaam Dunk,” which offers a sweet, insightful glance at young Iraqi life from the unusual focal point of a women’s college basketball team. It’s hard to see much future in the team itself, but the players are a fascinating, genuinely inspiring bunch, and the squad’s mere existence provides a stirring example of the possibilities for young Iraqis outside the country’s war zones. Vibrant docu should be a natural fit for fests and cable.
Set in the Northern Iraqi town of Sulaimani, home to the post-invasion American U. of Iraq-Sulaimani, the pic dives straightforward into team politics, as captain Laylan and coach Ryan (the film refrains from using its subjects’ last names) run through some contentious defensive drills. Fine takes his time introducing full cast bios, and it’s only later — when we’ve learned that Laylan spent most of her childhood hiding from firefights in Baghdad, while Ryan is an American grad student — that the unlikelihood of their brother-sister bond becomes clear.
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In only its second year of existence, the AUI-S women’s team has yet to win a single match — not too surprising, considering most of the players are only just learning the sport. Coach Ryan seems to find it best not to condescend to them, however, and drills the team with the kind of tough-love discipline that will be familiar to anyone who’s played competitive sports. Which, of course, makes it quite alien to the players in question.
Given the country involved, politics provide an inescapable subtext, though rarely the main concern. Nestled away from the war-torn metropolises further south, Sulaimani seems a particularly progressive city, even if the notion of women’s sports is still a strange one for many locals. Not only is the team coached by an American in a U.S.-sponsored university, but players come from both Arab and Kurdish backgrounds; the lack of any apparent grudges among members of these three historically hostile groups is rather remarkable.
Most of these girls have individual stories that would make for riveting docus on their own, and the film does well to focus on the struggles they have adapting to the American-style university, with many of them recording their own video diaries. (Like many survivors of horrific circumstances, they all seem more interested in dissecting their daily troubles in the social and academic spheres than in recounting their painful pasts.)
Camerawork is especially dynamic in recording the team’s league games, even including ESPN-style graphics and scoreboards. While these trappings could seem condescending when applied to a team of such obviously amateur status, they actually work in transmitting the passion the players bring to the affair. When the girls finally win their first game thanks to some buzzer-beating heroics, it’s hard not to share in their joy.