SPEED SISTERS (2015); DIR. Amber Fares; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Website here.
By Andrew Kemp
SPEED SISTERS opens with a shot of a young Palestinian woman struggling with her car. Three men appear from nowhere to offer support, so she stays behind the wheel, grinning, as they push her where she needs to go. I read this scene as a mission statement. Amber Fares’s film is about the first all-female racing team in the Middle East, after all, and I live in a country with (incorrect) assumptions that women in that region rarely get behind the wheel. But if SPEED SISTERS is about gender equality—and in part, it is—the film gets there without preaching or proselytizing. These women can race, and so they get to race. Duh. The film is far more concerned with being kinetic, fast-paced and blisteringly entertaining, so if there are political points to be made, they’re going to have to learn to keep up.
Auto racing is a relatively new sport in Palestine, and thanks to the region’s network of checkpoints and crowded neighborhoods, there’s very little room to rally. Instead, races happen through tightly wound tracks, seemingly in borrowed parking lots. Cones mark the track, and racers drive their own modified cars—compact and nimble—through the twists and turns. The sport is dominated by the men who started it, but Maysoon, frustrated by traffic jams, founded the all-women’s team and acts as its captain. The team competes alongside the men and makes frequent media appearances to promote the sport. Most of the public reaction seems positive. Occasionally, an old-timer grumbles that the women don’t wear the hijab, or that racing isn’t a proper sport for a lady, but the girls laugh off these complaints. One younger man tells the camera that it took only a couple of races before the women had earned the men’s respect and acceptance. Racing is a community, it seems, and they’re all in this together.
Most of the personal conflict comes from within the team. Betty, a fashion-plate born into racing royalty, and the team’s public face, is a champion. Marah, young and hungry, fights to take Betty’s spot despite resistance, perceived or otherwise, from the organizers. Noor’s hot-headed nature triggers costly mistakes on the track. Mona is talented, but willing to toss racing away if her new husband asks her to. As the film follows the team from race-to-race, throughout Palestine and into Jordan and elsewhere, Fares does an expert job of keeping these storylines humming, shifting them between the foreground and the background with precision, punctuating the character drama with dashboard shots of the team whipping cars around obstacles, laughing with the freedom the track offers, enjoying the thrill of being behind the wheel. Their passion is for driving. It certainly can’t be the money; there doesn’t appear to be any.
Above all, SPEED SISTERS is a blast. The races are thrilling, the characters are compelling, and the jokes are laugh out loud funny. But while the politics are backgrounded, they’re impossible to ignore. If the people the film presents to us are united, it’s because they see enemies all around them. Their country is claustrophobic. Marah sees racing as a means of announcing her freedom to Israel, who she sees as an occupying force in her homeland. Fares backs her by contrasting the energy of the races with the unimaginable slowness of everyday life in the region. Traffic jams. Inspections. Orwellian checkpoints. One racer waves to soldiers on patrol, and is shot by a tear gas canister for her presumption. For the women with more restrictive travel passes, the ocean is just a concept. “They took all our most beautiful places for themselves,” one woman says when she finally lays eyes on the sea.
Better, then, to make her own beauty out of asphalt and cones. Behind the wheel, squealing tires in hairpin turns, wind whipping their hair as they scream in excitement, the team takes back their agency. If they can only race fast enough, their problems get left in the dirt and the dust. The world belongs to them, and they keep it in a rearview mirror.
SPEED SISTERS is playing at festivals across the world. For more information, visit the official Website.
Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.