When you think of the way Arab people, and specifically Arab women, are portrayed in the media, very few purely positive images come up. Typically, women are either portrayed as villainous terrorists or as slaves and victims to their husbands. But a new documentary is here to leave those tropes in the dust—literally.
Speed Sisters follows the very first group of female race car drivers in the Arab world—five badass women who are breaking down barriers and making a name for themselves on the circuit, all while living in occupied Palestine.
Amid the dulcet tones of tires squealing (along with a dope soundtrack that features an impressive roster of Middle Eastern artists), we get an intimate look into the lives of five teammates: the boisterous Noor; Mona, who is dealing with getting older and wanting to start a family; Betty, the charismatic “face” of the team; Maysoon, the captain who fights for her team; and Marah, the extremely talented underdog. They are all fiercely independent, driven (heh), and entirely relatable.
“You see yourself or your friend, or your daughter, or whoever,” Amber Fares, director of Speed Sisters, told me over the phone. “Something in them reminds you of someone you know, and [that's] a powerful thing when you’re looking at Arab and Muslim women. That sort of connection is very important especially in today’s current political state.”
For Fares, who grew up in a Lebanese family in Canada, it was important for her to combat the stereotypical and just plain false images of Arab people that constantly barrage Western viewers. “The images you see on TV are so contradictory to the experience of growing up in a Lebanese household, whether it be in North America or in the Middle East, and I just felt like I wanted to create a film that reflected more of what I had experienced both traveling in the Middle East and then growing up in the Arab community in Canada," she said.
Women staking a claim in a male-dominated sport is certainly a break from the monotony of tired Middle Eastern tropes we see over and over again in the U.S. But Speed Sisters also shows the respect the men featured in the film have for the women. While the other male racers admit that it felt weird to have women driving at first, they consider the women their peers and are very supportive. One of the main threads features Marah and her father, who works in order to support her driving career.
“When we were filming it, that very much became the story,” Fares said. “I think again you have this misconception like, ‘Oh there’s no way they’re going to support women racing cars in the Middle East, that’s just ridiculous,’ but why not?”
Fares explained that women in Palestine have been actively been at the forefront of social movements and civil society throughout history. “Why would it be any different to have women driving there as opposed to some place like Canada?”
The film is not specifically about the the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but it obviously looms large. “It was very much a story about the women, and the occupation came into it," Fares said. "The politics came into it as they lived it.”
This is clear from watching the film. First, finding a location for motorsports in Palestine itself is a bit of a miracle because there’s hardly any room. On top of that, there is a heavy military presence at all times, making life unpredictable, and at one point in the film the women have a very scary brush with Israeli soldiers.
“The randomness of violence is very true to the film,” Fares told me. “In filming it, was my life in danger? Yeah, it was. We got shot at. Those are the situations that we were sometimes in, but that’s the situation that Palestinians are in on a constant basis.”
Despite the specificity of the situation, the message of Speed Sisters remains universal.
“Regardless of the situation that people live in, they’re people,” Fares said. “Everyone has hopes and dreams and are striving to live a better life.” When I asked if there was a message she wanted to get across for American audiences, she said, “It’s just exposing people to a different narrative, a different possibility to put in their arsenal of imagery that exists.”
“I think it’s always important to humanize people and to try to chip away at that sense of the other, and I think it’s really important for people this day and age to see really strong powerful Muslim women who are sort of doing their own thing,” she added. “They’re empowered already—they’re not looking for someone to come and empower them.”
Speed Sisters will be making its US theatrical premiere this Friday, February 10th in New York City. The film and its soundtrack will be available on iTunes on the same day.