“The smell of tear gas reminds me of my childhood,” says Maysoon Jayyusi, the coach of the all-female Palestinian car racing team featured in the eponymously named documentary film, Speed Sisters. It is with these words that director Amber Fares sets the stage for the four teammates’ thrilling ride across the West Bank, cruising the stereotypes of a male-dominated sport and of a society under foreign occupation.
The Speed Sisters, Marah, Noor, Mona, and Betty are the first ever female car-racing team in the Middle East and the stars of the film. Though they share a common passion for car racing, the sport means something different to each of them. “My parents give me everything they have. I feel a responsibility,” says Marah, whose principled commitment to sport doesn’t come without challenge. Her grandfather, for one, complains that “people are talking.” As in any society where women face gender-normative roles, Marah’s grandfather regards her car racing career as trifling in comparison with doing something “more valuable.” That notwithstanding, Marah enjoys the support of her father who feels that the hardship Palestinians face under occupation compels them to innovate, even if it means challenging deeply-held views.
The team also grapples with limited racing and training space: with Israeli checkpoints crisscrossing the West Bank, finding suitable roads on which to practice and compete is no easy task. Getting around can be a logistical nightmare as Maysoon explains, especially when “kids are throwing stones, and [Israeli] soldiers are throwing bullets.” There’s a telling and ironic shot that aptly sums up the entire dynamic of Israeli occupation and Palestinian determination to pursue normal life: the Sisters often spin their wheels in a lot adjacent to Israel’s infamous Ofer prison, where an estimated 1,250 Palestinians, including children, are incarcerated, often without charge or trial. One time during their practice near Ofer, Betty is hit and lightly injured by a gas canister fired at close range by an Israeli soldier patrolling the area.
Rivalry between Marah and Betty also surfaces, exposing favoritism on the part of the all-male Palestinian Motor Sports Federation. Coach Maysoon is particularly conscious of the fact that her team “can be viewed as a threat” as she navigates opportunities and sponsorships for the Sisters. She often has “to compromise” to make the men “feel like they are in charge.” At one point during the film, Marah’s sporting career comes to a halt because of the federation’s disregard of its own rules and regulations. “Judges are just for show,” she laments after the rules are bent to favor another contestant. Despite the setback, she returns to the rubber-burning tracks to regain her title as champion of the women’s category.
Although reactions to the team are largely positive outside their families and professional circles, the Sisters still face detractors. In one scene Noor reads aloud from Facebook. “You are a sign of the end of time,” says one comment. Another advises that the Sisters “should resist [the occupation] with stones, not sports and fashion.” Despite these comments, the Sisters remain confident in charting their own course.
The film is set to music from a dynamic compilation of Middle Eastern artists of various styles and backgrounds. Featuring soundtracks by Apo and the Apostles, DAM, and others, Fares’ documentary uses lyrics that capture a feel-good and humorous success story realistically without ever losing sight of the obstacles in the background. These are not only confined to the occupation. In fact, viewers who are familiar with recent Palestinian developments cannot fail to see the connection to the general state of Palestinian affairs in all the disputes over rules and regulations.
This combination of a good human interest story and a dark political context is rare enough, and in the case of Speed Sisters the viewer is invited to look at Palestinians as any other group of people with dreams, ambitions, and countless obstacles on the road to achieving them. As Maysoon relays, Palestinians can’t simply bring their lives to a halt because of the occupation. The documentary is a delightful portrait of extraordinary determination and redemption.