ATLFF Review: SPEED SISTERS Wins by Racing Against Expectations

Posted on: Apr 12th, 2016 By:
Noor

Noor in SPEED SISTERS.

SPEED SISTERS (2015); DIR. Amber Fares; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Website here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

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.

Marah.

Marah.

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.

Betty

Betty.

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.

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Kool Kat of the Week #1: Jazz Meets Mizrahi and Rock: Up-and-Coming Israeli Artist Nadav Remez Brings His Unique Spin to the Atlanta Jazz Festival

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012 By:

The Atlanta Jazz Festival brings a national and international who’s who of the art form to Piedmont Park for an amazing free concert every Memorial Day Weekend. With so many incredible artists, we decided we couldn’t pick just one, so this week, look out for two Kool Kats.

Nadav Remez. Photo credit: Dana Merison.

The first is guitarist Nadav Remez. He’ll be playing Sunday, May 27 at 6:30 pm. Lauded as one of today’s top emerging jazz voices, he grew up in Israel, scored a full scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, also studied at the New England Conservatory and now resides in New York. Last year he released his debut CD, SO FAR. As for his music, it has been called “haunting” and reflects the versatility of jazz as an art form merging modern jazz, alternative rock and traditional Israeli folk music.

You have a really interesting background having grown up in Israel and had your first music education there. How did that shape your approach to jazz?

I grew up in the Tel Aviv area and into a situation that resembles many other places in the Western world in the ‘90s. I listened to a lot of pop music, British and American. We had MTV Europe, which was different from MTV in America because it actually played a lot of music, not just reality shows. So when I was a teenager, my musical inclination was very pop-oriented. However, in Israel, international pop was just one channel feeding us musically. We also got some other types of music, what we call mizrahi music which is our folk pop music, popular Middle Eastern music. So we grew up listening on the radio here to one song from the UK Top 40 and then the next song would be Middle Eastern. As time went by, from the ‘90s into the 2000s with the Internet, more people [in Israel] were exposed to different kinds of music, and musicians started mixing these kinds of music together. If you turn on the radio today, you find our pop has a lot of Middle Eastern elements.

Then I went to Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, a famous art high school with a jazz major that produced many famous Israeli jazz artists. That’s where I first heard about jazz, and it was very exciting experience. I was woken up to a new reality. Jazz was a music that’s not just something around you, not just something that you played coincidentally but something very serious and very deep. That’s when jazz came into place for me, into my world. I was lucky to have many teachers dedicated to jazz as an art form, who really taught me a lot about what the music means—teachers who had lived in the US in New York. So they brought their love of jazz over toIsraeland to many of my peers.

Nadav Remez. Photo credit: Dana Merison.

Who are your favorite classic Retro jazz musicians and why?

For me, going into high school, I was so shocked by this new thing in my life called jazz. I just wanted to explore it all around, but my teachers told me that in mu first years of listening to jazz, I should be listening to jazz from the first half of the 20th century up to the ‘60s. That’s when a lot of the innovations in jazz were taking place—Charlie Parker in the ‘30s and ‘40s, John Coltrane in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, etc. I was focusing a lot on bebop, hard bop and post bop, styles that emerged in the early  ‘40s to mid ‘60s. With jazz in those days, it really was about listening to different musicians but whoever I was listening to, they stood out as geniuses because they all were. That being said, I was very much into Coltrane. He and Charlie Parker are like the gods of that era. There are no rules but I’d say to someone who is an aspiring jazz musician in their teens, before you go to newer music, you should check out the roots because that’s where the music comes from.

Your approach is very eclectic and innovative, blending Eastern and Western sounds. Can you talk a little about how you developed your unique style and sound?

That all started when I was at the Berklee College of Music in Boston about five to seven years ago. I and a group of other Israeli musicians started to experiment with long improvisation forms that came from jazz and added Middle Eastern aesthetics to it. That’s where our ears pulled to naturally. After I started playing with it, I also started writing my own music and thinking about my first album, SO FAR. At this time, I was trying to absorb what was around me. Jazz musicians stay close to their roots. So I started to listen to more Middle Eastern music and trying to apply those concepts and ideas into my jazz, and also rock and pop, mainly ‘90s sounds. Radiohead was a very big influence.

Your Atlanta performance is with a special project, right?

Yes, the Nadav Remez/Omer Avital Quintet. It brings together songs that I wrote and songs that Omer Avital wrote. He’s a very important figure in jazz right now and a bass player with many albums behind him, both as a leader and a sideman – currently with Yemen Blues and Third World Love. This [performance] will be a combination of tunes by me and tunes by him. Like all music, it’s in a way both similar and different because we both grow up inIsraelin similar settings. But he’s older than me—he’s 40 now—so he has other Israeli influences from when he was growing up. Even though one could hear both the pop/rock influences, as well as the mizrahi influences, in both our musics, Omer’s music leans more towards the mizrahi, while my music leans a little bit more towards rock. The quintet also includes Greg Tardy [tenor saxophone], Jason Lindner [piano and keyboards] and Yoni Halevy [drums]. It’s a high profile line-up which I am very excited to perform with.

Playing Smalls in NYC. Photo credit: Dana Morgan.

If we go to New York, where should we go to listen to some great jazz?

Personally I like going to places like Smalls, Village Vanguard and Fat Cat. But these days in New York, you can hear great music all over the city, not only in Manhattan. There is a vibrant scene in Brooklyn as well. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper and see what’s going on tonight or look online. I recently found an iPhone app called NY Jazz, that displays a comprehensive list of jazz shows as far as a month in advance. The New York scene is very alive with contemporary jazz, cutting edge jazz and also traditional jazz—which also is cutting edge.

You just said traditional jazz is cutting edge. What do you mean?

Because jazz is a music of the moment. Even if you play with the traditional language from the ‘50s and ‘60s, you can still have lot to say and make very strong statements.

What’s next for you?

[Omer and I] have a few more shows [together]. In June and July, we have a residency in Smalls Jazz Club in New York with Omer’s new band called Band of the East, and then there are several other projects in 2012 that are going to involve us playing and performing together. With my own group, I will be travelling in July to Germany to play at the Palataia Jazz Festival and plan to perform in Israel in August and September.

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