Filmmaker Amber Fares on How to Shoot a Documentary About an All-Girls Race Car Team in Palestine

"The film isn't overtly political... You can't not display the Occupation, because [these women's] lives are so dictated by it and they're immersed in it — but what we really tried to do was keep it at a personal level."

Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares’ documentary Speed Sisters (out in limited release in the U.S. and on iTunes) is a character portrait of five women on a race car team in the Occupied West Bank. Any single one of those things could be a subject of interest for a documentary film, but in Fares’ movie — her debut feature — none of the the film’s context overwhelms its devotion to its subjects. From the humbly talented and family-oriented Marah Zahalqa, through the no-nonsense Noor Daoud and performative Mona Ennab, to the nurturing Maysoon Jayyusi and love-distracted Mona Ennab, we’re presented with a series of personality types anyone might recognize as the key components to any team — and we’re then given more and more context about how they individually stretch themselves within the confines of what the team allows.

We see how they maintain their relationships with femininity while asserting themselves — and earning a great deal of respect — in a male dominated sport. We see how they balance their love of racing with burgeoning romances (and sometimes how they find crafty ways to avoid compromising either.) And we see what it means to them to have chosen a sport that seems mutually exclusive to life under a restrictive, space-limiting military occupation.

As Speed Sisters progresses, the team meets various spacial challenges: there’s hardly anywhere they can practice, and the places they can use are connotatively fraught. At one point, they speed around an empty lot with a view of an Israeli military outpost. The “Israeli West Bank barrier” — referred to by many, less euphemistically, as the “apartheid wall” — cuts through many of the film’s shots. The very idea of the sport in which the team engage — which sees them swerving through lines of cones in a tight loop, over and over — provides a metaphorical reflection of their situation: crafting a joyous, unexpected, challenging path within a rigidly lined structure.

I actually first met Fares by chance, two weeks before her film was released in the United States, at a protest at JFK airport the weekend Donald Trump’s “not a Muslim ban” Muslim ban was announced. In the U.S., it’s the very lack of everyday stories from the Arab world that enables, at least in part, the kind of sweeping generalizations that in turn enable sweeping and ugly policies. It helps enable someone like Trump to appoint someone like David Friedman — a man who supports further settlement in the Occupied West Bank — as the ambassador to Israel.

Narratives like that in Speed Sisters, then, seem crucial for us — but thankfully, that’s not because the film didactically deems itself thus. Audience members can certainly see and parse the symbolic value of some of the themes running organically through it, but for its own part, the film just gets to tell five really cool stories.

I spoke with Fares again, after the protest, when I found out that she’d made a film that was very much of interest, and remembered, oh right, that interviewing filmmakers is a thing I do.

What made you decide that you wanted to document Palestine through these close, specific personal narratives? 

I always wanted to make a personal story. My grandparents came from Lebanon. Growing up, the Middle East was a very distant place. However, we were exposed to it because my grandmothers were a very big part of our lives. 9/11 had a huge impact on me. I felt like we went from being a citizen to a suspect in a blink of an eye. I realized that I had to have a better understanding of the Middle East in order to better deal with what was happening at home.

The media at that time, and still today, was never reflective of my own experiences of the relationships I grew up with through my family and the greater Arab community and eventually the Middle East. I wanted tell stories that reflected those people and relationships.

When I met the girls, these race cardrivers, it was surprising because they were doing something so unexpected. Unexpected anywhere — you don’t see women race car drivers that often. But in the middle of the Middle East it may seem strange, and then even stranger is it’s in the middle of this place that’s occupied, and there’s very little access to space. It was like, “how can they even do this here?!” But at the same time these girls are so universal — you see yourself in them.

Politics seems embedded in the film, but you never really veer from the stories of your central characters’ lives. 

The film isn’t overtly political — it’s very much the point of view of these five women. You can’t not display the Occupation, because their lives are so dictated by it and they’re immersed in it — but what we really tried to do was keep it at a personal level. There are so many films that deal with the politics of Palestine/Israel, but we didn’t want to get into the details of that; it just plays out naturally through their lives. It’s politically important that we see more diversity in our media, full stop. Everyone knows the Ellen example of how that has helped changed the tide in the country surrounding LGBT issues — and I think we need to see more Arabs and Muslims and these types of characters in our media. There is an appetite for films like Speed Sisters right now where there may not have been as much previously.

How did you decide on how you were going to structure the film to engage the audience with these women’s personalities — playing with archetype within their team dynamic but also hyper-specificity — and present their emotional arcs as something cinematic?

This was my first documentary film. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you just shoot a lot. We had over 500 hours of footage. And that was really a lot to go through. We knew we had to balance their individual lives and their family lives and who they are. And then you have the races as another thread, and the occupation and the politics and the social issues. There were all of these things we wanted to show through five characters. There needed to be a cohesive story running through it, so it was in a lot of ways like treating it as a script after the fact.

They’re obviously doing this crazy thing, but there’s five of them, so you don’t know where the story actually is. Initially, there was another character that was racing; I thought the story was going to be about her. She ended up retiring, and then I went out and spent a day with Marah and her family, and I realized, “Wow, there’s this father who’s amazing and came from a refugee camp, and this family is all really into this sport, and her brothers are her pit crew.” There are a lot of Palestinian experiences, but hers was one of coming from a refugee experience. As we kept filming, the rivalry between Betty and Marah became very apparent. And then we started getting into that. That quickly became the focus.

I know you met the Speed Sisters after being invited to one of their races by a friend. When you approached them with the idea of a film, was there reluctance from them? Or from their families? 

The girls were all very into it — they’re race car drivers, so they’re very out there. In the beginning it was just about races, and I would film cool stuff with them at practices, and I’d throw it online. I’d take and give them a lot of pictures, so they loved it. Because I was living there, in Ramallah, they knew people that knew me. I knew Noor’s mom. She owned a store that was next to a café that I’d go to all the time. I wasn’t a stranger. The girls were super open, but it was Marah’s family in Jenin that never had foreigners coming through. But we had an all girl crew — it was me and two assistant producers, both of whom were Palestinian Americans, so we always had a women-centric and positive environment. It felt like a girl gang a lot of the time, and they liked that. Same with the male racers and the federation for that matter. They let us have free rein.

Across the film, we see the stratification of who’s afforded certain forms of (limited) mobility under the Occupation; and I assume that the sad irony is that you, as a visitor, likely had more mobility than any of the women in your film. How did this come into play in shooting?

There are checkpoints I could go through that they couldn’t. Maysoon and Noor have a Jerusalem ID, which means they’re citizens of the city, but not citizens of the state of Israel. The cars are plated differently. A yellow plate is for Israeli registered cars, and the white and green ones were Palestinian. A Palestinian car cannot drive past certain checkpoints, and there are checkpoints that go into Jerusalem and into Haifa. The girls that have a West Bank ID and not a Jerusalem ID need a special permit to access them. Marah and Betty and Mona would need a special permit issued by the Israelis to cross that border, whereas I could go anywhere, because I had an Israeli-issued visa in a foreign passport.

In general, it creates tension within the Palestinian community themselves. The mechanics of whether you’re a Jerusalem ID holder or a West Banker divide people mentally. You saw that from Marah and Maysoon and Noor — Noor can drive across that border any day she wants. But for Marah it was such a huge ordeal. There are so many tenets of the Occupation; there’re so many different forms of control. As a Canadian citizen living there, there’s often rules that don’t apply to me that apply to them. You become very aware of that.

I was struck by the subtle class dynamics in the film — when we’d see their home and professional lives, it was clear the five women came from very different social contexts.

Being from Jenin — where Marah is from — versus Ramallah or Bethlehem where Betty is from, there’s a lot of regional tension. Ramallah has all the political and economic power; it’s also wealthier. With Jenin and Ramallah, it’s a dynamic like New York and New Jersey. It felt like the federation favored Betty not only because she was beautiful, spoke English, and came from a wealthier family — but also because she lived in Ramallah. That was an overall thing that all of the racers in Jenin felt – that they were discarded because they were from a smaller place. But in terms of Noor being really wealthy and Marah not being as much — I think in Palestine the Occupation affects everyone. Unless you’re ultra-ultra wealthy — but even so, it treats everyone equally.