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Speed Sisters: Palestine from behind the wheel

June 9, 2015 3:35 P.M. (Updated: July 25, 2015 9:45 A.M.)
Noor Daoud at a drifting competition in Jordan (Amber Fares)
By: Anna Kokko

RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Wheels are screeching as race cars make circles in the middle of an empty street. Once the dust has fallen, one of the drivers gets out to stretch her legs - only to be shot in the back with a tear gas canister by an Israeli soldier.

This is not the latest installment of the Fast and Furious. This is 'Speed Sisters,' a documentary about five Palestinian women who are determined to drive race cars despite Israeli military checkpoints and a stigma against female race drivers from some members of their community.

Released in Doha at the end of last year, the film had its Palestinian premiere in Ramallah this May. The movie is the first long-form documentary by Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares.

The idea for the film came to her in 2009 after she received an invitation to a car race in Bethlehem. At the time, she was working for a local development agency.

“I was curious to go, as racing cars was the last thing that would come to mind when talking about Palestine,” she told Ma'an. “But it was a great event with a festive atmosphere.”

In the middle of the competition, Fares saw the female racers. For the following five years, they became the focus of her work.

(Tanya Habjouqa)

Palestine beyond the occupation

Following the women, mostly in the occupied West Bank, Speed Sisters takes viewers from a beauty salon in Ramallah to a family gathering in Jenin. Fixing and driving cars is an essential part of the film, whether this happens on the racetrack or on a bumpy street navigating around goats.

For Fares, it was a conscious choice to show Palestine the way that the locals experience it.

“The military occupation obviously affects a large part of their lives, but there is so much more to be told,” Fares says. “Palestinians love to celebrate life – they love music and dance. Humor is a very important aspect of the culture.”

Yet the Israeli occupation takes a toll on the five drivers’ lives. With major restrictions on the freedom of movement for Palestinians -- there are nearly 100 fixed military checkpoints in the West Bank -- it is hard to find a place to practice. 

Earning enough money to buy a new car – or a house – can also be tricky under constant political instability.

In one bittersweet scene, Marah Zahalka, winner of the female championship, finally gets a permit from Israeli authorities to cross a military checkpoint and visit the beach in Jaffa with her friends.

“Imagine if we could come here every day,” sighs one of the women while swimming in the sea, a rare joy for the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, who are forbidden from entering East Jerusalem or Israel.

While Fares was welcome to film at people’s homes and public places, she had to use small cameras to get images while crossing Israeli checkpoints. Although working conditions sometimes proved troublesome, the director did not want to dwell on the details.

“I just keep filming until someone tells me to stop,” she says.

Marah's father and brother watch her race. (Amber Fares)

Breaking gender norms  - in the Middle East and abroad

In addition to a different image of Palestine, the film also portrays women accelerating beyond traditional gender roles. Fares says that some Western viewers were surprised to know that women are even allowed to drive in Palestine.

“Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where female drivers are not allowed. Still many people think that the whole Middle East is like that,” the film-maker said.

Fares believes that the powerful women in her documentary are representative of Palestinian society as a whole, and not just the exceptions to the rule.

“We have Marah, whose father comes from a refugee camp, and we have Betty [Saadeh], from the diaspora… They all come from typical Palestinian families, and they all feel very Palestinian,” she says.

Yet the movie is not just about women racing against men. Although some men say women racing cars is a “disgrace”, most boys and men seem to be cheering for them. Zahalka’s father Khaled, for example, works long hours to allow his daughter to pursue her racing career.

“It is not a film about men oppressing or forbidding women. Many of the guys are very encouraging and proud of these drivers,” Fares says.

The filmmaker believes that the story carries a universal message of breaking societal barriers. As she points out, even in Canada women might face obstacles if they choose sports which are traditionally considered “masculine.”

“We have a lot of issues with gender equality in the West as well,” she says. “But somehow we like to focus on the hijab [the headscarf].”

The Speed Sisters is currently showing at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in the UK and is expected to be released in Europe and the Middle East later this year.

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