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  • Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival 2012-13
  • Mark Gibney (bio)

As it has done for years, Human Rights Watch has put together a "Traveling Film Festival" from its screenings in London and New York, giving universities and civil society access to an outstanding array of films. Listed below are this year's offerings.

Salaam Dunk (David Fine, 2011, 82 min.)

Hoosiers meets the war in Iraq in this documentary about a group of determined young women who lace up their sneakers to play basketball for the American University of Iraq in Sulimani. One problem is that most of the players have never played a sport before, let alone basketball, but this does not diminish their spirit and love of the game for even a moment. Another problem is that they have to practice on a crumbling outdoor court. Although things get particularly tricky when it rains, one of the most memorable and beautiful scenes in the film is when a player refuses to leave practice in a teeming downpour until she hits her last basket, as shot after shot clangs off the unforgiving rim.

The girls do have some things going for them. One is their camaraderie, both on and off the court. Another, surprisingly enough, is the support of their families who withstand an enormous amount of criticism from the townspeople for allowing their daughters to play a sport. And finally they have their coach, Ryan, an American graduate student who does what all great coaches do: he pushes and prods and makes his players perform much better than they ever thought they could.

The film is light on politics. For sure, the never-ending war is always in the background along with the country's ethnic divisions, but for the girls this only seems to manifest itself when choosing the music on the bus rides to the games. Instead of politics—or anything even resembling good basketball—what we see are young women transforming their rudimentary athletic skills, their character, and, hopefully, their country.

The viewer becomes an immediate fan of these girls and there is a special joy in watching them win their first game—ever. But there are lows as well, including a bruising 68-2 defeat, and the suspension of one of the players for not meeting the university's demanding academic standards. The climax of the film comes in the last game, where the players know that Ryan will be leaving them to return to his graduate studies in the US. They want to send him off with a win, but come up just short. For his part, Ryan coaches as if the NCAA title is on the line, and in many ways what is at stake is even more important. Only the most cynical will not get misty-eyed when he turns to his players in the huddle and unintentionally echoes a line used by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers when his Indiana farm boys are about to go up against the bigger, taller, and more talented city kids for the state title: "I love you guys." It is easy to see why Ryan loves his players so much and what they and their efforts have meant to him. But you also understand why these girls, who refuse to be tied down by societal and religious norms, appropriately love him back.

At the risk of being cute, Salaam Dunk is a Slam Dunk. Recommended.

Brother Number One (Annie Goldson, 2011, 99 min.)

Pol Pot was commonly referred to as "Brother Number One," but the reference in the title of this moving film is to Kerry Hamill, the oldest brother of Rob, the film's moral compass. Decades before, [End Page 807] Kerry and a friend were sailing in the South Pacific when a storm blew them off course and into Cambodian waters. Although they were just misguided travelers, they were captured and tortured by Khmer Rouge forces, who compelled them to confess to being enemies of the Cambodian people and put them to death.

Given the Cambodians' incredible suffering, one could be critical of all the attention paid to one of the few Western victims of the Khmer Rouge. Rob Hamill often seems...


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