There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)
Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.
The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.
The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.