'Speed Sisters' documentary helps drive home life in the West Bank

The award-winning documentary "Speed Sisters" follows the first group of female race drivers in the Arab world, five relatable women who struggle to get ahead racing cars in occupied Palestine.

Amber Fares grew up in Alberta, Canada, proud of her Lebanese heritage, but never feeling a need to deeply explore it until after 9/11. Then, everything changed.

"In a blink of an eye, you went from being a citizen to a suspect [because of] an issue that I really didn't know much about," Fares says. "There was a particular narrative coming out of the Middle East, and there was nothing in it that reflected the experience I had growing up in an Arab household and community."

Fares gave up the marketing career she started after earning an MBA from the University of Calgary to become a filmmaker. She taught herself (basically) how to make social documentaries and moved to Lebanon, and then to Palestine, with the idea that she could capture and deliver a different narrative.

Her first feature-length piece is the compelling and surprising "Speed Sisters," the story of five intrepid Arab women who bond in Israeli military-occupied Palestine to form the Middle East's first all-female race car team.

The film debuted in 2015 and has played in some 100 film festivals in more than 30 countries, but it was released in the U.S. only this year. "Speed Sisters," along with its stirring soundtrack featuring Middle Eastern artists from around the world, recently was made available through iTunes, Amazon and on DVD.

"Speed Sisters" has won awards, including the Irish Film Institute Doc Fest Audience Award for Best Feature and the Sportel Awards (Monaco) Peace and Sport documentary prize.

"One of the things I really love about it is how universal the story is," Fares said in a telephone interview. "People can connect to it no matter if they're in Sampor or Oklahoma. And I feel like the Middle East in general is so underrepresented in terms of stories that aren't about a specific narrative, which is a narrative of terrorism. It just thrills me that people can connect on a personal level to these girls."

Courtesy of Speed Sisters

"Speed Sisters" racers, from left, Noor Dauod, Marah Zahalka, Maysoon Jayyusi and Mona Ali.

The film follows the five women both on and off the track. Although they compete fiercely against each other on a makeshift street racing circuit, they also compete against men in the male-dominated sport. So for support, practice and training, they align as a team. Off the track, the women grapple with everyday challenges and the reality of living with military occupation, including roadblocks, security checkpoints and threats of violence.

The volatility of the region was a constant challenge for the women, as well as the filmmakers.

"Things can get violent pretty quickly," producer Avi Goldstein says. "There's a scene where there are rubber bullets being shot, and another scene where a tear gas can canister does some damage, and that's just a fact of life when there is military all around controlling the civilian population.

"So it was unpredictable, and the film team learned to navigate through that space and be cautious and try to film what was happening around them and what was happening around the speed sisters as they went through their day-to-day lives."

There's no overt political statement and no narration in the film: The women tell their own stories through action scenes, interviews and dialogue (subtitled in English and 17 other languages).

"Stylistically we decided we wanted the voices and experiences of the women to guide the film and for you to be immersed in their experience," says Goldstein. "That was a very deliberate decision, and it posed a challenge in terms of making sure that things were understandable and clear and that the story itself would drive people through the beginning and end of two seasons on the circuit."

Fares and Goldstein formed SocDoc Studios in 2009 and were living in the Middle East -- Fares in Ramallah and Goldstein in Jerusalem -- when a friend invited them to a street racing event in Bethlehem. Such events are held at places like an old helicopter pad, a vegetable market and a security academy, with the drivers screaming and screeching around cones for best times and scores.

Amber Fares/First Run Features

Mona Ali hangs out the window as Noor Dauod drives through the streets of the West Bank.

Almost instantly, Fares had an epiphany. "It was just such a fun and festive event, and bizarre," she recalls. "And then, on top of it, these women were throwing helmets on their heads. Right away, I realized, oh my God, this is the kind of story that could bridge the gaps I was talking about."

Goldstein had a similar first impression about that first race in Bethlehem and how it shaped the film.

"What we saw out there was just extraordinary," he says. "We found ourselves in the middle of a large crowd watching this race, in the middle of a large tarmac in Bethlehem, surrounded by cheering fans, kids, men, women, dozens of racers, mostly men, and in the middle of this all of this was a small but very scrappy and talented group of women who were racing head-to-head with the men.

"It provided an opening to a world that we didn't know existed. Amber had come over from Canada, I was from the U.S. and this was not anything like the images we had seen in the news about what life was like in Palestine. That raised a lot of questions and curiosity that led to next step and eventually became the making of the film."

The Palestinian Motor Sport and Motorcycle Federation, founded in 2005, organizes and officiates the races every six weeks from March to December in cities throughout the West Bank. Racers are given a map of the course (including between and around cones) to memorize and then compete against the clock, with two attempts at the fastest time. The top 10 times advance to the final round. 

A storyline keeps "Speed Sisters" moving, starting with a new season and 19-year-old Marah Zahalka determined to defend her women's title while representing Jenin, one of the most socially conservative and economically depressed cities in Palestine.

Betty Saadeh, her biggest competitor, comes from a wealthy, influential family of racers. She gets a break when a questionable decision by the officials puts her on top, and Marah must decide whether to quit in protest or follow her drive to win. The friendships between team manager Maysoon Jayyusi, free-spirited Mona Ali and thrill-seeker Noor Dauod add depth as the women navigate love, religion, gender inequity and family pressures.

Courtesy of Speed Sisters

The father and brother of Marah Zahalka are among the fans lined up to watch racing in the streets.

Surprisingly for such a conservative part of the world, the women appear to be accepted and respected by the male drivers and fans. They are fashionable, relatable and distinctly differently from each other in personality and motivation, which was apparently a stroke of luck for Fares and Goldstein.

"Anytime you go deeper into someone's personal life and get to know them, somehow the picture comes into focus a lot more, and they do become more relatable," Goldstein says.

Director Fares used an all-female film crew to capture all of the backstory, which she said helped build trust with the women and create a deeper sense of intimacy. She personally bonded with the women and got to know them well.

"There is so much of that film that I would have never been able to write," Fares says. "That was amazing for a documentary. The beauty of it is, they were their own people. They didn't know each other before they started racing. They all came to racing on their own, so I think that kind of helped with it as well.

"It just happened to be five individual women who were attracted to the sport, and they found a way to do it, and then they found commonality while they were there and then, finally, sisterhood."

For more on "Speed Sisters," check out the film's website: speedsisters.tv

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