Speed Sisters challenging convention at the Ritzy

Brixton resident James Selby reviews an exciting documentary screened at the Ritzy which follows the trail-blazing exploits of a team of female Palestinian street-racers

The latest in the Ritzy’s Discover Tuesday screenings was Speed Sisters; a fly-on-the wall account of a group of female Palestinian street-racers, the first all-female racing team in the Arab world. It was an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary by Amber Fares, a Canadian filmmaker with Lebanese roots. Post 9/11 feelings of disconnection with life in North America led Fares being drawn to relocating to the Middle East, and it was during time living in Ramallah that she encountered the remarkable group of speed-thirsty trailblazers.

The documentary follows the female racers through two seasons in their modified BMWs and hot-hatches, handed down from their mother or acquired by a beaming smile to their father. Races are time-trial events on especially laid-out courses in Jericho, Bethlehem and Jenin, culminating in the season finale race in Aqaba, across the border in Jordan.

The story charts the girls’ tussle for end-of-year supremacy, with disqualifications and scandals along the way. The audience is also shown the hardships endured in Palestine. We experience the refugee camp where Marah’s family had lived nine people to a room, and at another point witness one of the girl racers shot by an Israeli military rubber bullet, merely for wandering along the wrong road. Later we see the difficulties the team face in moving freely within the occupied territories, a trip to the coast at Jaffa being a rare treat once permits had finally been issued and the lengthy security checkpoint had been negotiated.

One of the 'speed sisters' Noor Daoud
One of the ‘speed sisters’ Noor Daoud

There are so many interweaving themes running through the picture that it can be difficult at times to know the message the director is trying to convey. Perhaps a multitude. Feminism is a central thread throughout yet there is little mention of any sexism displayed by the male counterparts or race officials.  Instead the themes of Israeli occupation, national pride, cultural expectations and the love between friends and family all jostle for the audience’s attention.

The documentary, delivered by an all-female production team, is a sharp and slick affair, well-constructed and engaging throughout. Racing a car, in any part of the world, is not a cheap pursuit and so the Speed Sisters cannot be said to be an exact representation of Palestinian society, but nonetheless the film is fascinating on many levels.

Marah's dad and brother watch her race
Marah’s dad and brother watch her race

Amidst a host of overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback left on social media after a TV appearance by Noor promoting the team, one disgruntled poster commented “this is a sign that the world is coming to an end”. Upon exiting the Ritzy, you were left feeling that for many in Palestine (and perhaps other modernising Middle-Eastern countries) they could be feeling quite the opposite.

The screening was followed by a Q&A hosted by the distributor – Dogwoof – with speakers Mia Bays (BAFTA winning film producer) and Beryl Richards (drama/film director) for a discussion on gender equality in tv & film production. Although comprising over 50% of UK film students, only 13% of UK comedy and drama directors are women. Female directors fare even worse, at the helm for only 3% of big-budget UK & US films. Whether this is due to gender bias by film financiers or other factors is unclear, but on tonight’s evidence it is certainly not through lack of skill or originality.