“Our women used to cook and farm and milk the cows. There was nothing like sports.” So proclaims a grizzled man on the street, not exactly thrilled by recent changes in Iraq. Still, as demonstrated in Salaam Dunk, those changes are well underway. Filmed in 2009, during the American University’s women’s basketball team’s second season, David Fine’s inspiring documentary keeps focused on the effects on the women, as well as their American graduate student coach, Ryan Bubalo. Introduced one by one, designated by their team numbers, the players share their initial nervousness (some had never dribbled a ball before they joined the team), their frustrations and their evolving commitment to each other.
The movie—screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York on 18 June—suggests the hours of effort that make up this process, sometimes by conventional sports-doc devices, scenes at home with supportive relatives, drills compressed into montage, and “personal Video diary” entries. “This is Michael Jordan,” team captain Laylan smiles as the film begins, pointing to a poster in her bedroom. “One day I’ll be like him, in my dreams!” While all players endure the physical effects (the team manager fetches bags of frozen peas to apply to players’ shins) and the five games in their season (which include matches against clubs that have recruited players, meaning, they’re really tough opponents, one beating them 68-2), Ryan is relentlessly proud of their “scrapping.” “Let’s continue to get better, all the way until the last minute of the last game of the season,” he encourages them. No matter the outcomes of games, over the season, the team members—comprised of women from all over the country and a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Christians, and Arab—come to see themselves as a hardworking, mutually devoted unit. “Now we feel like we come from one family,” asserts Laylan.