Automobile manufacturers fret that today’s bike-crazy millennials scorn car culture, but in Speed Sisters, hot wheels cast their spell over an unexpected group—young women in the occupied West Bank. Amber Fares’s documentary follows the Middle East’s first all-female car racing team as its members win races, feud among themselves, and cope with the twin irritants of Israeli oppression and narrow provincial life. It’s a fast, upbeat trip that brings some compelling profiles and issues just close enough.
The Speed Sisters race home-jiggered cars on rough courses, competing in places whose names we know from TV news and from passages in the Bible: Jericho, Ramallah, Aqaba. The milieu is far from the Formula One glamour circuit, but the young women take pride in gunning their engines before cheering audiences of mostly young men.
Personalities emerge quickly. Level-headed team captain Maysoon balances racing with entrepreneurship and tactfully puts off answering her family’s demands to know when she plans on getting married. Noor’s tough, streetwise persona is undercut by a ditzy tendency to lose her way on the racetrack. Supported by a doting father, ace driver Marah aches to score a win for her beleaguered hometown of Jenin. And golden-haired, ultra-femme Betty plays the Britney/Mariah diva role, proclaiming, “I’m beautiful and attractive—I’m a brand” at the first sign of success.
Rivalry between Marah and Betty develops as a source of tension. Filmmakers stage an awkward reality-TV style confrontation between the two, but scenes of the women on their home turf underscore the pair’s differences sharply enough. Betty gets her nails done and coquettishly offers TV star Anthony Bourdain a ride. Marah restlessly walks through Jenin, taking in a landscape of underemployment and limited aspirations: “I’m sick and tired of walking the same streets, seeing the same faces.” Conflict plays out on the track as male organizers of the races see a winner in the pretty blonde and so make sure the darker driver loses. Marah’s attempt to engineer a comeback after being cheated out of a rightful victory drives part of the film.
Another looming theme is the Israeli military presence in the territory. Especially for women who love the open road, hulking walls bordering the way to Jerusalem create a sense of entrapment, and tear gas can go off in traffic at any minute. The girls hold different travel permits, which makes even a trip to the beach complicated and difficult. A TV quips that Palestine can’t have auto rallies because drivers encounter checkpoints every few minutes, and the sardonic joke doesn’t seem far off.
In fact, a violent brush with Israeli soldiers provides a dramatic release that viewers and the girls have been waiting for: Betty’s overdue comeuppance. “Because you’re blonde, honey, you think because you’re pretty they’re not going to shoot you?” Noor later sardonically asks. “If you’re dark, if you’re blonde, if you’re black, if you’re pretty, [they don’t] give a crap.” Hard realism reveals the toll of occupation on even the freest of spirits. But true to form, the group gets past the shock and back on track.
Speed Sisters alludes to politics, but it wisely keeps the focus on the women. Even while facing hard decisions in grim conditions, the resilient competitors make breezy, easy company. We glimpse the darkness they and their unhappy region face, but high energy ultimately propels these young hot-rodders forward—they leave trouble in the dust.