Salaam Dunk: Film Review

 Basketball competition offers Iraqi women useful life lessons.

Relentlessly positive but tough when necessary, coach Ryan Bubalo of an Iraqi women's basketball team inspires both determination and loyalty among team members in this sports-oriented doc.

 As an alternate perspective on life in war-torn Iraq, David Fine’s debut feature doc about a university women’s basketball team offers a combination of personal history and sports drama that’s certainly unique, but lacks either the humor or gravitas to distinguish it from dozens of similar well-meaning films. Given the subject matter, vigorous festival play is assured and Salaam Dunk could even go into extra periods on DVD and VOD.

Winning doesn’t come easily for the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq (AUI-S), located in the northeastern city of Sulaimani. The private English-language university opened in 2007 to Iraqi students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds and many attendees have relocated from Baghdad and other cities for the opportunity to study in Sulaimani. Due to the security situation in Iraq, the last names of team participants have been withheld in the film.

After an inaugural season racking up an unbroken string of losses, the players return in 2010 determined to put as many points on the board as possible. In his second year training the team, coach Ryan Bubalo is hopeful that the women may see some wins, but isn’t leaving the outcome to chance, preparing them with frequent sprints, drills and intense scrimmaging. Even so, it comes as a bit of a shock, followed by a burst of exhilaration, when the team wins its very first game by a single point. The thrill is short-lived however, as a series of tough matches that follows tests their skills and commitment.

Many AUI-S players never played basketball — or indeed any sport — before joining the team, since women’s athletics are still largely frowned upon in Iraq. The teams they compete against are mostly better-trained and more experienced, factors that sometimes result in major point spreads during games. The women also need to focus on their studies and maintain their GPAs, additional sources of stress that compound the challenge of building the AUI-S basketball program.

Relentlessly positive but tough when necessary, Bubalo’s own basketball background and upbeat attitude inspire both determination and loyalty among the team members.

The women also have personal and family issues to grapple with, including relocation from conflict zones, personal experience with the violence of war, and the deaths of friends and family members in the ongoing conflict. A temporary English instructor at AUI-S, Bubalo intends to return to the U.S., a fact that unnerves his players and frames the bittersweet 2010 season.

While Salaam Dunk and various university administrators earnestly try to make the case that AUI-S is training the next generation of Iraq’s young leaders, beyond winning basketball games and passing exams the stakes aren’t adequately clear for these charismatic young women. Equating the rigors of training and competition with the challenges of rebuilding Iraq stretches the metaphor rather too far to sustain an entire film.

The HD technical credits are serviceable, combining interviews, game play and the women’s personal video diaries, but lack the dynamic filmmaking or editing expected in a sports-oriented doc. A lively original score and soundtrack of local pop tunes effectively spurs the film’s momentum.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Fest
Production company: Seedwell Films
Director: David Fine
Producers: San Saravan, Peter Friedrich
Executive Producers: Beau Lewis, Peter Furia
Director of photography: San Saravan
Music: Jeff Kite, Rebwar Quaradakhie, Hawar Zahawi, Azad Zahawi
Editor: David Fine
No rating, 83 minutes