The Canadian-Lebanese filmmaker Amber Fares, whose documentary about female Palestinian race car drivers, Speed Sisters, opens in New York City tomorrow, didn’t come to the film’s topic through a love of the sport.
“After 9/11,” she says, “there was a shift in consciousness. I started to feel like a stranger in my home.” Mosques were vandalized in Fares’s hometown in Alberta, and her family received threatening calls telling them to “go back to where they came from.” Fares set out to have a better understanding of the Middle East. “I wanted to be able to combat stereotypes and what was happening in Canada,” she says.
To that end, Fares spent time living in the Arab world, including Palestine. She came upon the Speed Sisters—Marah, Betty, Noor, Mona, and their manager, Maysoon—while attending a race in the city of Jenin. The documentary follows the women as they train, participate in co-ed races in cities across the West Bank, and vie to be named “fastest woman.” Viewers are also privy to their lives off the course, through interviews with family members and footage of them at home, with friends, or at their day jobs.
Speed Sisters has earned praise for its fast-paced, gripping tale. There is a deep rivalry, for instance, between the two best racers, Marah and Betty, that plays out compellingly in the way of well-made sports movies. But, true to Fares’s goal, the film has also been singled out for its stereotype-busting portrayal of Palestinian women and society.
The sisters are stubborn and outspoken, and they have supportive mothers as well as fathers—a far cry from the usual Western narrative of the voiceless Middle Eastern woman oppressed by her tyrant father or husband. The film also highlights class and religious differences in Palestine: While Noor lives in a beautiful home in Ramallah, Marah hails from a working-class family in Jenin. Betty is Christian, the other racers Muslim.
Yet Speed Sisters isn’t preachy. The socioeconomic complexity of Palestine, as well as the hardship of living under Israeli military occupation, simply unfolds as the film progresses. Fares says she decided to bring the occupation into the film the way the women experience it: by “bumping into it” in daily life. In one scene, Betty is hit with a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier, and is rushed to the hospital. “This strategy perhaps doesn’t clarify the systems of the occupation,” says Fares, “but it gives a sense of how they affect Palestinians and hopefully fosters an interest to learn more.”
Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often represented as religious in nature, it is a conflict over land, and one that has seen dramatic losses for Palestinians. Israeli settlement building and other displacement strategies have resulted in the fragmentation of the West Bank. Fares notes that the Palestinian Authority only has control over urban centers, not the spaces in between them. This makes a simple jaunt from one city to another an incredibly complicated, arduous journey through checkpoints and other barriers.
This lack of space can be seen in the dearth of viable sites for races. The Palestinian Motor Sport and Motorcycle Federation, which holds the events every six weeks from March to December, is forced to create racetracks within the urban fabric. “It even blocks off streets and uses traffic circles,” Fares says. Other race locations include a Jenin fruit and vegetable market that is closed on Fridays and a tarmac in Bethlehem that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used as a helicopter landing pad.
With such small courses, the racers can only go so fast. “They rarely go above second gear,” says Fares. And the Federation tends to change its rules arbitrarily—sometimes seemingly in the middle of a race, a practice that stymies Marah and intensifies the competition between her and Betty.
Fares likens these issues to the experience of negotiating the spaces of the West Bank. “You can drive down a road and there’s suddenly a new checkpoint and blockade,” she says. “You thought you could go there, and then you can’t.”
More broadly, the racing is about freedom—or a lack thereof. “The driving gives both men and women a sense of liberation, but there are still elements in the larger political landscape that block that,” Fares says.