Thursday, March 1, 2012

Salaam!

written by guest blogger Adam Hartzell:

It is not rare for us to see successive films that deal with similar topics grace our local screens. Be it the possible corporate subterfuge that resulted in the animated films Antz and A Bug's Life being released in the same year or the cultural zeitgeist forming a critical mass of choreographed documentaries about dance like Pina, Joffrey: Mavericks of Dance, and Space in Back of You into Bay Area movie houses this quarter, let alone the So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing with The Stars TV empires, it's not unusual to find several films in dancing time with the same spirit.
 
But it is a little unusual to have two films come to San Francisco festivals with related themes that have chosen similar titles - Salaam Rugby (Framaz Beheshti, 2010, New Zealand) which came to the San Francisco Iranian Film Festival last year and Salaam Dunk (David Fine, 2011, USA) which comes to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 1st as part of the Human Rights Film Festival. Although "Salaam" is the word for "Peace" in Arabic, it also means 'greeting'. These films work off both those bits of salaam-ness. Sports are often a place for us to find peace from the everyday world thanks to the fully immersive Csíkszentmihályian flow that such pursuits involve. Both films also investigate the introduction of a women's sport to these primarily Muslim countries, Iran and Iraq respectively. Furthermore, 'Salaam' can be purposely bent in its pronunciation to sound like an accentuated phonetic variation on the word 'slam', as if both syllables are dipthong-ed - Saaaaa-laaaaaam!. This phonetic play works for both titles since rugby players slam into each other and b-ballers, well, slam dunk. Outside of salaam, both films highlight the positive benefits sports can bring - fitness, teamwork, regimented schedules, and a forum to display individual excellence.
 
Salaam Rugby distinguishes itself in its greater focus on the difficulties these sports pioneers face when engaging in the scrum of gender politics in modern Iran, where obstacles are placed in front of them to discourage their non-conformist efforts. For example, the only field time the women are allotted is in the middle of the summer days, the hottest time of the day, made even hotter since women in Iran are required to be covered head to toe to wrist, even when playing sports. The best fields and best times on those fields are reserved for men. Yet when they get a chance to play, the rugby pitch can still offer a place for sanctuary from the society that limits their actions off the pitch. (Although I haven't seen Laura Green's short Lady Razorbacks, the brief summary in the program for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival suggests that this short about Pacific Islander American women rugby players in East Palo Alto also highlights sport as a sanctuary for women.)
 
Although Salaam Dunk does touch on gender issues, such as why the women wouldn't follow the American coach as he went to jog in the public square, an act of impropriety for women in Iraq, this is a minor focus. The film spends more time addressing the political specifics of sectarian conflict in Iraq that this team of young women have been able to transcend along with the perseverance of each of the players striving to do their best on the court and off. These young women initiated the creation of a women's basketball team at The American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. (You will hear many of these women refer to the city as 'Suli'.) Based in northern Iraq, the women are shielded from the violence that occurs mostly in Baghdad. These women are Christian and Muslim, Kurds and Iraqis, the latter groups with tense histories of conflict. (Salaam Dunk doesn't shy away from the complicated context of the U.S interventions in Iraq either, such as how the young women from Baghdad won't mention to people back home that they attend AUIS because of its association with America.) One of the unique aspects of Salaam Dunk is how Fine includes the team's manager Safa in his focus of athletes. Safa doesn't play the game, but she helps coordinate the facilities and equipment required for practices and is a 'mom' to many of the players. As a result, she, an Iraqi Arab, has found herself befriending Iraqi Kurds whom she would have never come in contact with before, (AUIS is in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq), offering hope that Iraq will have future leaders to cool the long history of sectarian tensions.
 
Returning to the similarities that connect these films beyond the titles, they demonstrate the importance of sports in women's lives. Like No Look Pass (which screened at IndieFest in February and will screen at Cinequest this weekend and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival later in March), it is clear how much sport has provided for these young women in helping define who they are. (In Salaam Dunk, the impact these women have on their American coach is quite endearing.) Yet these sports also need these women if they are to continue to be relevant.
 
Case in point, that unique Australian contribution to the sporting world, Australian Rules Football (AFL). Although AFL is the leading sport of Australia, it does not have the prominent presence in the state of New South Wales where Australia's biggest city, Sydney, resides. In Melbourne, if someone mentions they were 'watching the footy', they mean AFL. In Sydney, they mean NRL (National Rugby League). Although there is an AFL team in Sydney (the Sydney Swans), the AFL brass knew they had to make further inroads in Sydney to maintain their national dominance. So they've crossed the Sydney harbor to the Western suburbs and a new team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, has been added to the line-up for this year's season, which begins in March. And part of their promotional efforts to encourage some footy faithful to cross this bridge of football codes has been developing a women's Aussie Rules team in the western suburb of Auburn. And that women's Aussie Rules team is made up of Muslim women who have headscarves for headgear.
 
The western suburbs of Sydney are partly known for significant Muslim communities. So to wedge away the footy allegiance many Muslim 'Westies' have towards the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs of the NRL, the AFL is utilizing community ambassadors and trading in on the AFL's unique status as the football code with the greatest number of women members - close to 50%, compared to below 40% for the NRL. As an Australia-only sport, the AFL is perhaps more anxious about its viability than a rugby code that has many other countries playing its version of football. So the AFL's calculation that it needs women to maintain viability is an interesting extension on what Salaam Rugby and Salaam Dunk reveal - women need sport as much as sport needs women. Although Nasva Bahfren's radio documentary on this effort by the AFL for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is excellent and needs no remake, if someone makes a film documentary about the Auburn Tigers women, I bet they'll call it Salaam Footy.

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