Sunday, 1 July 2012

House Magazine Feature: Salaam Dunk

My feature on the Iraqi women's basketball documentary Salaam Dunk, as published in issue 21 of House magazine, the quarterly mag for Soho House members. 



Text: 

‘For men only.’ One northern Iraqi man is responding to the concept of women playing sport. ‘I don’t agree with it, but this is the modern lifestyle,’ says another. The opening minutes of David Fine’s documentary Salaam Dunk massage our assumptions about where women figure in post-invasion, post-Saddam Iraq. That’s to say, even when they’re not in immediate danger of conflict, Iraqi women tiptoe around under conservative, restrictive rules.

‘I hear that the Western view is that Iraq is just a desert where women stay home to serve their men and are mistreated, covered up and uneducated,’ says Laylan Attar, a student at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani who was captain of the women’s basketball team during filming. ‘I want the world to know this is another country and that despite the 100 years of wars and corruption we play sport, and by “we” I mean women.’ And that they do, with varying success, as Salaam Dunk charts the basketball team’s second year of existence at the University. At the helm is American coach Ryan Bubalo, who responded to students’ requests to build the team from scratch. Now back in the US, Bubalo recalls the challenges of coaching a team who had scant, if any, experience of training. ‘The whole first year was really spent learning the fundamentals of the game, and, more importantly, learning teamwork and accountability to one another. Things I sort of took for granted – basic health issues like drinking water or eating right or the idea that practice attendance was mandatory – had to be taught.’

‘As far as I remember it was quite funny,’ Attar concurs. ‘We didn’t know how to hold the ball or dribble the ball. We never practised sport so our bodies were out of shape. We would eat ice cream or chips before the practice so we would get tired quite fast.’ As Bubalo recounted his experiences over email, friend and filmmaker Fine saw the potential for a sports documentary that would also unveil another side of the country. ‘We made this film to show people in the West a different view of Iraq. With this goal in mind, being an outsider was vital. I know the preconceptions that many Americans have about Iraq, and this understanding certainly informed my approach.’ The team was keen to ‘break with the narrative that focuses on war and death’ but he adds that ‘the film tries to make very clear that what’s portrayed is happening in this semi-autonomous Kurdish region that has enjoyed (relative) safety for many years.’ The university is progressive, but even as the girls take advantage of this, many don’t tell friends at home in other cities that they’re attending an American university.  But for all the gravitas of its setting and some of the stories the young women confide in their video diaries, Salaam Dunk succeeds on the simple level of making viewers root for the team. Uniting Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis and Shiites into one cohesive unit is no mean feat, but letting historical hostilities get in the way of bettering themselves as a team is not going to cut it. They’ve never won a single match, but they’re so in love with the game they’ll devote hours to drills or to shooting hoops in the rain with their teammates.

‘After the movie came out and I watched it, I realised that we are indeed very mixed in terms of ethnicities. Every girl in my team is unique in her way of thinking and behaving, but that didn’t stand in front of us,’ says Attar. ‘We play one sport despite the different backgrounds, it brought us together as one family.’ For Fine and Bubalo, working with the girls showed promising glimpses of what the country could become should political issues and security improve. ‘They’ll graduate from university soon. They’ll go on to succeed in whatever fields they choose, and as they continue to press against some of the barriers women in Iraq face today, they’ll have one another for support,’ Bubalo predicts.  One particularly moving scene in the film comes after the team has played their final match with their coach before he returns to America. The emotional bond between them is clear, as is the effect his tutelage and their dedication to the game. Fine remembers how hard it was for him and his production team to leave the country after shooting, but credits Bubalo with really changing the players’ lives.  As for the girls they left behind, they’re still studying hard and training harder. Their passion for the game is infectious, and it’s hard not to feel inspired by Attar’s assertion of the sport’s power. ‘It’s the best way to heal oneself,’ she says. ‘Basketball is the best way to learn lessons in patience, respect, sharing, acting under pressure, seeking so hard to win, working really hard... it rewards you.  It helped me to overcome many difficulties and it made me a healthier person, and more optimistic.’



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