Speed Sisters

22 / 09 / 2015

Speed Sisters, a new documentary by Amber Fares, is neither a purely feminist treatise nor a statement on living under occupation in the West Bank. In the film era of Bechdel tests, it’s refreshing to see a true story offer fascinating insight on how women can change the world they live in, rather than be defined by it. By Amal Awad.

Its marketing strong point is that Speed Sisters provides a look at the first all-female car racing team in the Middle East, and implicit in this selling point is a nod to the rise of feminism in the Arab world. In the same way Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hunger Games trilogy tried to appeal to feminist sensibilities, Speed Sisters will undoubtedly attract viewers thirsty for proof of progress in the Arab world. Add in the fact that these women are making headway in an overwhelmingly male-dominated sport, it’s clear why this is such a big deal.

The significance of a team of five female gymkhana street racers – aka the Speed Sisters –grows when you consider that the women are competing in Palestine, a part of the world under occupation and choked by checkpoints. Moreover, while misconceptions about Arab women abound, the Middle East needs some good PR on the women’s rights front.

On a personal level, I was excited about the film because I’m of Palestinian heritage and always thrilled to see women carving their own way forward. Yet it doesn’t surprise me at all that five Palestinian women are game-changers. I know the strength of Arab women; I know their passion, and that, for many, their lives are not defined by a battle against men and society.

So it must be said from the outset that this documentary is many things, and women claiming their rights is but one strand of a larger story. It is, in essence, an entirely human tale, with familiar themes: sisterhood, joy, envy, fear, survival, and, because it involves street racing, competition.

The latter has a starring role in Speed Sisters. The rivalry exists not between men and women though; it’s essentially between the women themselves, and for at least two of them, it’s not necessarily what may be considered the “healthy” kind. More specifically, in a team of five, we see the best driver, Marah, in a battle with runner-up (most of the time) Betty, who by her own description, knows how to go a step further and market herself as a “brand”.

Marah is the star racer from the “wrong side of the tracks”, because even in the West Bank, there is privilege. She doesn’t attract the lucrative sponsorships; she’s just there to race. Betty sexes it up, while going to pains to point out her limits (that is, she’s a good Arab girl even if she takes provocative shots beside her car). She lands a sponsorship deal with Peugot, which supplies her with a shiny new car. She chauffeurs Anthony Bourdain around her town of Ramallah when he’s in the West Bank filming for his show. She takes a dig at Marah’s hometown of Jenin, coming to a race “covered up” (meaning no singlet top) to indicate the backwardness of people in Jenin. Betty is above it all.

The film is about the team, but the tension between Betty and Marah – and their individual struggles – are major currents. And Marah, arguably, is as competitive as Betty. She absents herself from a race when she perceives a bias towards Betty. There is pettiness on both sides, but Betty’s angst and envy of Marah is more palpable. Marah wants to win on her own merits. Betty just wants it all. As she tells us, and as we later see, she has an overbearing mother who always instilled in Betty the need to be the best at everything. This is not an entirely unfamiliar story – you’ve seen it in a hundred Hollywood movies.

And this is why this documentary is so groundbreaking. The identifiable traits of these women, understanding what makes them tick, are universal, even if the setting is different to what you may know.

Speed Sisters could easily be a film of pure fiction; it has such familiar, likeable characters. Noor is the cool one, but the most frustrated of the racers. She has trouble remembering the gymkhana routes, and tends to get disqualified.

Mona is engaged to be married, and not terribly invested in dreaming big. She adds lightness; accident-prone, she delivers some funny and tender moments.

Team captain Maysoon is the warm, maternal leader, who also runs her own clothing store. She won’t marry for anything less than love, despite pressure from her family. She’s also sharp. One of the few times we detect serious tension between the men and the women is when Maysoon goes in to bat for the drivers with the head of the Racing Federation.

“Sometimes I have to make myself smaller as the team manager so the head of the Federation feels he has the power instead,” she tell us. It’s a grim observation, but not unique to the Arab world.

Furthermore, you will forget, very quickly, that the men outnumber the women at the races. It’s clear that the sport is uniting a community under pressure. The men cheer the women on. They repair their cars and change their tyres. Marah’s father is her biggest champion, sacrificing the purchase of land and a new home to buy her a car to compete, and defending her when chided by Marah’s grandfather.

The thirst to succeed, and arguably, to survive, is at the heart of this beautiful film. And while it is partly about competition between females, you’re ultimately left wondering why it even matters if it is. We readily accept competition when it exists between men and it’s something we glorify rather than censure (see any fictional race car film ever made). Yet women are cut down and simplified to caricatures when they compete against each other. This is not Fares’ fault; indeed, even self-centred Betty is endearing.

This is the triumph of Speed Sisters. It’s about what drives us; it’s about pursuing a life of meaning. For Betty, it’s about winning not just a trophy, but everything; her world is a large, colourful one, even if it involves getting shot at by Israeli soldiers. For Marah, it’s the desire to have a life that impacts her family as positively as it does her. She also craves escape. She hasn’t seen beyond the West Bank, and yearns to expand her world.

This documentary will challenge anything you have ever believed about the Arab world, and the relationship between men and women. More significantly, it will enlighten you on the relationships between women under pressure. The Speed Sisters are not poster girls for progress in the Arab world. They are the Arab world, or at least a significant sample of it.

There’s a far greater story in this all, and it’s that women and men have found a way to have a passion and live a normal life under occupation.  It’s a film about women asserting their right to a life of meaning rather than coming up against men for equality. The barriers are many. That men aren’t the problem isn’t the point.  It’s how easily these women pursue what they want against extraordinary odds.

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