By Elias Savada.
I’m not sure NASCAR saw this coming. I sure didn’t. Speed Sisters, which has been racing about the documentary film circuit since it’s world premiere at the Doha Film Institute’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival last December (the film bears a 2015 copyright notice, so I suspect it wasn’t finalized until earlier this year), is an unusual hybrid, one combining production and creative elements from Palestine, the United States, Qatar, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Canada. But that’s not what really makes it unusual. It’s the subject matter that does — the first all-female, Middle Eastern race car driving team.
Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares jump started her set-in-Palestine debut documentary feature, which she had been filming on her own for two years, via multiple crowdfunding campaigns, aligning her project with affinity groups catering to racing, women’s rights, and other allied organizations, then crafting a 600-horsepower story line framed with some flashy nail polish and promotional race day attire. The crowds aren’t 300,000 strong, as they will be at this year’s running of the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500, with millions more watching on television. No, the attendance at the events covered in Speed Sisters might number closer to an exuberant 300. Almost all men. And the glorious asphalt track will be replaced by improvised courses on dusty, potholed parking lots dotting the West Bank. The glory? Trophies galore in a region hoping for peace to break out.
The film highlights the careers of five women, bright-eyed role models, include reigning “Champion of Palestine” Marah Zahalka, thrill seeker Noor Daoud (who bears a striking resemblance to Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany), accident-prone Mona Ennab, Betty Saadeh (a CNN-profiled, Mexican-born beauty), and team captain Maysoon Jayyusi, who also owns a clothing store.
The street races that form the core of the film aren’t start-to-finish battles, but instead are individual time trials filmed over two seasons and glimpsed in quickly edited sequences. The track is basically an obstacle course. In a open-area vegetable market in the West Bank city of Jenin, Marah’s hometown, it’s not just speed that counts (although it helps, a lot!), but avoiding penalties (hitting road cones) and disqualifications (driving the wrong way). In Ramallah, the team trains in an empty lot close to the Ofer Israeli Detention Center, where the cars’ screeching tires and smoking brakes might be unsettling for the Israeli soldiers. Bethlehem finds the women racing at the presidential airstrip. Later they drive in Jericho, the lowest city on Earth.
There are ample back stories, training routines, and some of their families’ occasionally deflected but generally proud support structures (as in wishing a daughter or grand-daughter had opted for a medical or other “respected” career), told when the women aren’t tearing up the ten-year-old Palestine Motor Sports Circuit. The film regales in its matter-of-daily-life, fly-on-the dashboard approach, particularly whether it relates to the tumult in the region or the sport at the center of the film. There are skirmishes near the huge, daunting concrete wall separating Israel and Palestine, a scary moment when tear gas canisters are volleyed by the Israeli military at the group, a maze of security checkpoints, and depressing newscasts of air raids on Palestinian civilians. With all the brutal conditions ravaging the area, it’s amazing that the populace has time for any kind of entertainment.
Director Fares pushes her tale forward, despite the abundant cultural tragedies afoot, whether in a refugee camp one moment or reporting on day-long curfews the next, breaking to roll with the high octane energy (and a pulsating, indie music beat) of the film’s inspirational subjects. The women racers’ battles are on the course with the guys behind their wheels. And themselves, as only the top two women will be able to compete in a year-end race in Aqaba, Jordan. Their rivalry will be tested, sometimes angrily.
At one point Marah goes into a downward funk, be it from anxiety from within the group, the Racing Federation’s ever shifting and seemingly sexist policies, or the general mind-fuck of the Israeli occupation constantly interrupting their lives. The political agenda seems obvious as Fares constantly returns to that monolithic wall, crammed with graffiti and symbolism. And on the web there is a spiteful minority offering anonymous, mean-spirited, chauvinistic advice (“You should resist the occupation with stones, not sports and fashion”).
I’m not sure the commentary on the fasting during Ramadan added anything to the story other than to show the changing trends in religious observation by one of the film’s stars, but the impoverished children selling balloons to motorists (and probably hamming it up for the camera filming from the passenger seat) suggest that heroes are needed for the Palestinian youth, and maybe these women can deliver such motivation.
Forget the lame jokes about women drivers. These girls, full of ambition and enthusiasm, just want to have fun! Not everyone can win a race, but Speed Sisters, an amiable 80-minute miracle in the unlikeliest of places, will capture your heart.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.