Speed Sisters (dogwoof, NR)

It’s an exuberant, action-packed film about the first all-female auto racing team in the Arab world.


If someone invites you to see a new documentary about Palestine, you might well anticipate gloom and doom—grim tales of life under military occupation, with a particular focus perhaps on ethnic discrimination, terrorism, or female oppression. Well, Speed Sisters offers exactly the opposite of that experience—it’s an exuberant, action-packed film about the first all-female auto racing team in the Arab world.

I knew absolutely nothing about auto racing in Palestine before seeing this film—in fact, I didn’t know that such a thing even existed. So let me clue you in on the particular type of racing featured in Speed Sisters, autocross, which is well-adapted to the conditions faced by the Palestinians and also a lot of fun to watch. Autocross races require drivers to weave a tight course with lots of turns in a small area—meaning lots of drifting and rubber on the road—and to do it all by memory.

Races are above-board—open to the public and are supported by police and emergency services—and are held every six weeks from March through December. Drivers are given a map of the course only a few days before each race, and must memorize it. Each driver competes alone, with the best advancing on time to the next round. If a driver deviates from the prescribed course (easy to do, as the courses are quite complex, like multiple barrel racing courses intertwined), or if the trunk or a door of their car springs open during the race, that’s a disqualification for the round. Hitting a cone means a time penalty.

The stars of the team are Marah and Betty, the former being the reigning women’s champion of autocross, and the latter her determined and glamorous rival. Both have the strong backing of their families—Marah’s father Khaled, a dental technician, is also her biggest fan, while Betty comes from a wealthy family of racers, and is eager to take her place among the guys. Maysoon is a stabilizing influence as the team manager, Noor a talented athlete and exuberant personality who hasn’t enjoyed the competitive success she expects from herself, and Mona, one of the first women auto racers in Palestine, enjoys racing but is less concerned about winning.

It’s a joy to spend some time in the company of these articulate, successful women, but director Amber Fares (a Canadian of Lebanese heritage) doesn’t let you forget that they have serious obstacles to deal with. The West Bank barrier (called the “wall of apartheid” in Arabic) is a fact of life, as are long delays at checkpoints (during a television program, the host points out that Palestine is the only country in the world where a car rally could never be held—because every few minutes the drivers would have to stop at another checkpoint!). As in apartheid-era South Africa, the type of ID (equivalent to the “pass” in South Africa) one has can make huge differences in where you can go and what you can do.

Fares has tucked a nice bonus into Speed Sisters—the soundtrack showcases music from the Middle Eastern indie scene, featuring artists like Hussein El Sayed, Youssra El Hawary, Elias Nasser, and Kareem Roustom. | Sarah Boslaugh

Speed Sisters will be screened at 7:30 pm on April 27 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO, 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and are free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.

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