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Whatever Wednesday: ‘Speed Sisters’

Speed Sisters is a 2015 documentary that looks at the first all-women rally racing team from Palestine. The documentary is, to some degree, about how we are powerless to the things that we genuinely love. But because it takes place in Palestine, it is also about life under the occupation.

Amber Fares is a Lebanese Canadian documentarian, is in awe of the women who race these rally cars. Yes, it goes against much of Islam; many of the families involved also seem to understand, there’s little they could do. What can they do? They love their daughters, and this makes them happy.

The documentary looks at five racers and their coach and paints a picture of a team that hasn’t quite learned how to become a team. But that’s not the point. The point is that they are here, they are alive, and they want to race. The occupation and cultural dictates be damned.  

Fares wisely introduces each woman, not sitting in front of the camera but in the driver’s seat of their rally car. The glee evident in their laughter and pure joy radiating from their smiles. The rally car is where they feel alive and at home.

While Fares talks to all five women, it is clear the story’s heart is Marah Zahalka. She lives in Jenin, her father Kahled, grew up in the refugee camps, and now works as a denture manufacturer. Of the five, Marah seems the most consumed with racing. Her biggest fan, her father, does everything he can to help her achieve her dream.

Marah leaves the team midway through the film due to a fallout between her and the racing federation. After a few months of restlessness, she confides to Kahled. She’s thinking about joining again. Kahled nods solemnly, stands up, walks over to the calendar, tells her when the first race is, and tells her they must practice. When asked how he knows when the races are, he merely replies with, “I just do.”

The bond between Marah and Kahled is the underpinning of Speed Sisters. The ladies don’t seem that tight, some being closer to each other than others. But Marah and her father have a bond that is so pure and loving it’s hard not to smile when Fares and Lucy Marten’s camera shows him rooting for Marah from the sidelines.

Of the other ladies on the team, Marah does seem close with Noor Daoud. Unlike Marah, Noor comes from money; she enjoys working out and other sports. She loves racing but seems to have trouble memorizing the courses. More than once, Noor gets disqualified for going the wrong way.

She’s not like Marah; she isn’t as obsessed with rally racing in the same way. Yet, in a small way, she is. Throughout Speed Sisters, we see Noor’s frustration with her lack of focus begin to erode her confidence. Marah, however, is always there and comforts her. Eventually, Noor discovers Drifting and soon finds herself drawn to it much the same way as Marah is drawn to rally racing.

The Speed Sisters are managed by Maysoon Jayyusi, a racer herself who runs a small clothing shop when she isn’t racing or managing the team. Maysoon is slightly older and a little wiser. The Speed Sisters are an anomaly in the Arab world. The racing world is still new, much less women racers, and she is trying to fight battles against favoritism, conservatism, and just plain bureaucratic obstinance.

But Speed Sisters is about women who live in Palestine, and it is impossible to look at these women and not see the weight of living in an occupied state does to someone. “The smell of tear gas reminds me of my childhood. During the First Intifada, we used to breathe it on our way to and from school.” Maysoon and Noor have permits and so can travel to Israel; the other ladies do not.

The racing federation can only find a small shelled-out lot for the ladies to train. A lot located right next to the Ofer Israeli Detention Center. At one point, Maysoon, Noor, and Betty Saadeh, another of the drivers, go to meet some journalists at their training grounds and are shot at by Israeli soldiers.

Betty is hit and seems shocked that they would fire at her. For most of Speed Sisters, we have seen Betty steadily climb the rankings of the racing team, and by circumstance, take the number one spot. She and Marah seem to be very competitive, and Betty, for her part, feels as if she is alone on a team. During interviews with Fares, she boasts of understanding how men think and knowing how to talk. After the incident at the training track, Noor tells her, “They don’t care if you’re blonde.”

Fares and Martens sidestep the talking-head style of so many documentaries by switching up where the ladies are interviewed while rarely ever having the ladies sitting center frame. They allow them to sit, relaxed, comfortable, as they open up and gush about the love of racing or petty gripes about their neighborhood. But in every shot, there is a reminder that Palestine is not a free country, and within every frame, we see Palestinians as we so rarely see them, as regular people with hopes, dreams, and loves as they go about their day-to-day lives.

After finally getting a permit, Marah can cross the border into Israel with Noor and Maysoon. Once on the other side of the wall, Marah can’t believe her eyes, “They took the most beautiful places we had.” Her awe only grows once she sees the ocean.

The way Fares’ and Martens’ camera will often sit and observe these ladies experience life in a way that never feels intrusive is part of the wonder of Speed Sisters. Fares isn’t interested in being intrusive. There’s a moment where Noor and Marah play in the ocean, consumed by the sheer jubilation of the moment; Fares doesn’t cut away; she sits and watches, reveling in the splendor and purity of the moment.

Speed Sisters covers two racing seasons and the ups and downs. We see drivers like Mona Ennab, who loves racing, but would rather be married. When we first meet her, she has just gotten into an accident. Her brother smiles and tells the camera she’s always getting into accidents.

One of the great pleasures Speed Sisters gives us is how Fares makes us intimately acquainted with the racing community. She doesn’t interview other drivers, but she captures the sights and sounds of each race, giving us little moments to understand how much this feels like home. Before every race, there is a man who gathers the drivers around him. All racers come to the starting line. We have important information; if you don’t listen, I don’t care. It’s your own problem!”

His voice, blunt and stressed, is a familiar and welcoming sound. Fares make sounds, and people feel familiar until they are like the sounds of a ballpark. Welcoming and cherished as we get ready for another nail-biter of an event.

Fares gives us five ladies and doesn’t sugarcoat any of them. She allows these ladies to be unlikable and likable. Fares enables them to be who they are. She does not attempt to sand down the jagged edges to their personalities and, in so doing, presents with five authentic ladies who can’t help but burn rubber. 

Speed Sisters is as much about Maysoon and her team as it is about life in Palestine. At one point, CNN interviews Noor. The anchor quips, “I just want to point out the irony that a car rally could easily happen in any country but Palestine because every few minutes you face a military checkpoint.” Noor smiles and laughs uneasily. 

It’s true, but that doesn’t make it funny. Fares understands this, and it’s why the documentary feels so immediate and vital. Speed Sisters wraps its story in the joy of doing something you love while letting the humanity of the ladies shine through. 

Image courtesy of First Run Features

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Author

  • Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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