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Driving to Surmount Obstacles: Speed Sisters racing team focus of ‘uplifting’ indie film

Contributed To The Press • Apr 3, 2017 at 6:45 PM

Meet Marah, Betty, Noor, Maysoon and Mona – the Speed Sisters, the first all-woman car racing team in the Middle East. They are surrounded by roaring, revving car engines, hundreds of cheering male and female fans and the excitement of racing through the convoluted streets of Palestine.

The only things slowing them down are the tangle of military roadblocks and checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and the frequent reports of nearby gunfire. In spite of the obstacles, these five Palestinian women are “challenging perceptions and banishing barriers on the West Bank,” The Metropolist says. “Living inside an almost impenetrable male-dominated world, they sport fierce nail art, wear searing expressions and drive at full throttle.”

Filmmaker Amber Fares captured this complex world in her first film, Speed Sisters, which received one of the top 20 Audience Choice Awards at Hot Docs and won the Audience Award at the Irish Film Institute Festival.

“Subtly rebellious and defiantly optimistic, Speed Sisters masks the sound of gunshots with the roar of revving engines,” says Jeannette Catsoulis from The New York Times.

Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present a screening of Speed Sisters as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers on Monday, April 10, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A and reception with the filmmaker.

Speed Sisters was filmed entirely in occupied Palestine and documents the dangers of living, training, and racing in such a highly militarized zone. With improvised tracks in open-air markets, parking lots and airstrips there is no shortage of military threats and questionable judges. However, through it all, the Speed Sisters have been grabbing headlines and turning heads as they have sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene.

“Similar to Mango Dreams, our first Southern Circuit film of the spring, Speed Sisters takes us on a cultural and emotional journey,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of event-sponsor Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “Amber Fares’ insights into the Middle Eastern racing scene and occupied Palestine from the point of view of this remarkable women’s racing team is a perspective we might never be exposed to otherwise.”

The film opens with 19-year-old reigning champion, Marah, determined to defend her title. Representing one of the most conservative and economically depressed cities in Palestine, Marah’s determination to make her hometown proud pushes her to be her best on the track. Betty, her biggest competitor, comes from a wealthy, influential family of racers. Meanwhile, the friendships between Maysoon, the team manager; Mona, the pioneering free-spirit; and Noor, the thrill-seeker struggling to find her way, bring a tenderness and texture to life off the track as each of the women navigate love, religion and family pressures while trying to be true to themselves in the face of a military occupation.

Speed Sisters “strikes a perfect balance, telling a righteous, uplifting story of triumph against the odds, without ever losing sight of the bigger political picture” says Time Out London.

Finding a balance was important to Fares, a Canadian with a Lebanese heritage, who grew up in an Arab society in Canada. “After 911 there was a lot of pushback toward Arab and Muslim communities and it was very much felt by my family.” Fares tells Another Gaze Journal. “The way that Arabs were being portrayed in the media was so different from what I had experienced in my own family growing up. I came across the Speed Sisters and that seemed the perfect story to tell. Very unexpected, very personal, very funny. It so much embodied my experience in the Middle East and my own family.”

While Speed Sisters challenges many stereotypes, Fares also wanted to accurately depict the realities of life in an occupied area. “You can’t tell a story in Palestine without the occupation being there,” Fares says. “We made a decision very early on that we wanted to portray the occupation as it affected them directly … We wanted to make it more show, not tell. It’s very hard to plan your life around checkpoints and a military occupation. The flipside of that is shooting in the Palestinian community was really very easy. They were so supportive.”

Working on the film with a very small all-female crew also made the project speed along more smoothly, she says, with “a lot of collaboration and not a lot of hierarchy.”

As a finishing touch, “Fares has tucked a nice bonus into Speed Sisters,” says Playback:stl. “The soundtrack showcases music from the Middle Eastern indie scene, featuring artists like Hussein El Sayed, Youssra El Hawary, Elias Nasser and Kareem Roustom.”

Whether documenting momentary failures or victories, Speed Sisters’ main focus is on the indomitable human spirit. “On the surface, Speed Sisters, is a film about two seasons in the lives of five women race car drivers from Palestine,” Fares says. “But more importantly, it is a film about the human drive to break through the obstacles in our lives and be true to ourselves and to our dreams.”

For more information on Speed Sisters, visit www.speedsisters.tv.

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. South Arts, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South's unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts. Their work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective through an annual portfolio of activities designed to address the role of the arts in impacting the issues important to the region, and linking the South with the nation and the world through arts.

For information about the film or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.

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