Speed Sisters begins with a scene that feels like it could take place anywhere in the world: with humble hatchbacks and older BMWs ripping their way around an autocross course, blazing past bright orange cones while their drivers pull handbrakes to negotiate hairpin corners at speed.
But the setting of this film is unlike just about any place on Earth where racing happens — or tries to happen. It is the West Bank, a place of factions and checkpoints and hummus and tahini. And the people behind the wheel have a story as unique as the time and place. They are all women, the Speed Sisters, the first all-female racing team in the Arab world.
It’s hard to think of more things stacked against the women on the team, who are featured in Amber Fares’ new documentary at long last making its U.S. debut this weekend at the DOC NYC festival in New York.
It’s tough enough living in the Palestinian territories, let alone being a woman there, and being a woman who’s trying to break into a world that’s even more male-dominated than it is in the West.
Fares’ film centers on the four members of the racing team—Mona Ali, Marah Zahalka, Noor Dauod, and Betty Saadeh—and their manager, Maysoon Jayyusi, over two seasons of ultra-competitive autocross championships in the West Bank.
All of these women have very distinct personalities. They hail from different cities and economic and social backgrounds, making their membership on the team one of the few things they seem to have in common, besides the fact that all were obsessed with cars at an early age.
Why autocross? Necessity. This is not a part of the world where people have ready access to state-of-the-art race tracks, or even small club tracks. The Speed Sisters practice their moves in a vacant municipal parking lot near an Israeli detention center. The races themselves, which attract huge crowds, are done in similar venues.
Some say autocross isn’t real racing, because there’s no wheel-to-wheel action involved. Not so in the West Bank. Like a game of pickup soccer, racing there happens where people can make it happen. Make no mistake that these women take their racing seriously. They wear fire suits and helmets. They walk the track before an event and they trace the line with their fingers, hoping to get faster and faster. They squeeze as much practice as they can fit into their daily lives.
And like any good racing team, they compete with other drivers as well as with themselves to see who will be the fastest woman driver in the Arab world.
Much of the film’s central story revolves around the friendly rivalry between Marah, whose dentist father is devoted to her success while other members of her family disapprove of racing, and Betty, whose championship and beauty queen looks quickly propel her to stardom.
The two women duke it out for the women’s championships, even if the sport’s male leadership seems to favor Betty at Marah’s expense with seemingly arbitrary rules and one championship lands Betty a sponsorship deal with a fancy new Peugeot RCZ sports car to compete in.
Obviously, being a woman racer in an Arab culture isn’t the easiest thing to, and the team and their manager face varying degrees of roadblocks and discrimination their male counterparts do not. Even as Marah’s dentist father remains devoted to her racing career, her grandfather openly and cheerfully says to her face he’d rather she do something “respectable.” And manager Maysoon discusses having to kowtow to the governing body’s male leaders when their authority feels threatened by a woman.
In some ways though, the fact that they’re in the West Bank is perhaps what enables much of it, as the relative liberalism of traditional Palestinian culture is at odds with what seem to be traditional media portrayals of women in the Arab world, all head scarves and fear.
They still face sexism and demands that wouldn’t be made of women elsewhere, but that’s only the half of it. The setting is the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the violence and tensions from that conflict is like a shadow that hangs over everything they do. Try staying focused on racing when you deal with checkpoints and bombings and the constant threat of violence. In one scene, Betty is even struck by a tear gas canister fired by a soldier. In another, Maysoon says the smell of tear gas reminds her of her childhood.
But Speed Sisters is smart to leave politics at the door, for the most part. It’s not a commentary on the occupation; it merely treats that situation as what it is for these women, a fact of daily life. It’s something they deal with because this is their home.
In that way racing is revealed as something that has universal truths, whether you’re in the Middle East or America or the UK or anywhere, really. For the Speed Sisters, racing is something that broadens their horizons, that lets them meet new people, that satisfies that burning desire to go fast and to compete.
For these women, and their families and fans, racing is an escape from what they have to deal with every day. It shows that life can go on as normal even in the most difficult of circumstances. Speed Sisters is more about what these women have in common with gearheads around the world, than what makes them different.
Speed Sisters is Fares’ first feature-length documentary one that’s been in the works for years now thanks to some struggles with funding. Luckily for us, it finally happened, because it’s a treat to watch. Fares imbues the racing scenes in the films with a sense of energy and fun, and she paints a compelling slice-of-life story about these women.
The film is a must-see for anyone who loves racing, and wants to see how tough it is to make racing work in one of the most difficult parts of the world.
Speed Sisters premieres tomorrow at 2 p.m. EST at New York’s SVA Theatre. You should go see it. Buy tickets here.
Photos credit Speed Sisters film
Patrick George is Jalopnik’s managing editor and chief arts critic, a position he recently appointed himself to because he’s the boss now and can do whatever the hell he wants.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.