was no Title IX in Iraq under Saddam. In
fact, the general idea of gender equity that motivated the landmark legislation
remains scarce throughout the region.
Yet, two years after its founding, the American University of Iraq,
Sulaimani (AUIS) fielded a pioneering women’s basketball team. They never won a game during their first
season. David Fine documents their
second in the truly inspiring Salaam Dunk
screens as part of the 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
students are the future leaders of Iraq.
Offering a rigorous academic program in the relatively sheltered
environment of Sulaimani, AUIS makes a point of recruiting a cross section of
Iraq’s population. As a result, the
nascent women’s basketball team boasts a roster of Arabs, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis,
and Christians. They are led by Coach
Ryan, a visiting American English lecturer.
Tough but supportive, he is a refreshing antidote to all the wrong sort
of coaches who have made the news recently.
However, everyone is keenly aware his fellowship ends with the current
students from Baghdad, Sulaimani is an island of stability, yet many still
worry about their families. Nearly all
team members have lost friends or family to violence. As Coach Ryan observes, his team has faced
more in their still young lives than most of those watching their documentary
will ever have to contend with. Not
merely an extracurricular activity, basketball becomes something uniquely “theirs.” It bonds the young women together and gives
them a sense of identity. They also want
no genre traffics in shopworn clichés like the sports documentary, but Salaam is something else entirely. When the coach consoles his team after a hard
loss that their gutty performance is more important than a “W” or an “L,” it is
not hollow. It is a profoundly heavy
moment. Notions of sportsmanship and the
“healing power of sport” take on very real meaning here.
Fine gives viewers a full sense of players’ personalities, as well as that of
their coach and student-manager. They
are all bright and immensely likable.
Indeed, the experience of AUIS in general and the women’s basketball
team in particular appears to be a successful social catalyst, bringing the
diverse team together, despite their religious and ethnic differences. This does not mean Salaam is uneventful. The
AUIS team just saves their drama for the court (or the classroom or the
is a great documentary. The term “crowd-pleaser”
just does not cover it. While the
circumstances of the Iraq War unavoidably hang over the young Iraqis, Salaam scrupulously avoids politics, as
such. It is one of the best sports docs
in years, but it is not really about games and stats. It is about a group of young scholars
becoming athletes and leaders, who will inspire audience confidence in Iraq’s
future. While HRW is always a radically mixed
bag, Salaam Dunk and the opening
night selection, Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, the Sundance alumnus profiling the Chinese dissident
artist, are two films that should absolutely not be missed. Highly recommended, Salaam Dunk screens this Saturday (6/16), Sunday (6/17), and Monday
(6/18) at the Walter Reade Theater.
Labels: Documentary, HRWFF '12, Iraq