Film

Racing Along With the Palestinian Women’s Team of ‘Speed Sisters’

by

After an Emirati TV station profiled Palestinian auto racer Noor Daoud, the online comments, as they tend to, flooded in. Some were nasty, questioning Noor’s priorities and even her gender identity. In the new documentary Speed Sisters, we see Maysoon Jayyusi, the driver’s team manager, dismiss the internet blather, reading out her favorite comment from the computer screen: “Knowing the Koran, liberating Palestine, and this girl’s talent are all important.”

As the head of Speed Sisters, the only women’s car-racing team in the Middle East, Maysoon is easygoing and full of delight; she knows that the very fact of her team’s existence is a radical act of resistance and that her task above all else is to provide her drivers with support. Picture Maysoon tucked behind the desk at her full-time job in a clothing store, scrolling through online coverage of the races on her break, team members stopping by to check in. Director Amber Fares takes the stories of the racers just as seriously, and just as personally, as Maysoon does.

One story features oil stains, acrylic nails, long hair whipping out of helmets in the wind. That narrative belongs to Betty Saadeh, the blondest, wealthiest, and most famous of the Speed Sisters — and the one least invested in the group. In a meeting at the Palestinian Racing Federation, Betty says, “I don’t feel that we are a team.” When she comes to race in Jenin, a run-down city in the northern West Bank known as the site of a large refugee camp, Betty teases teammate Marah Zahalka: “See, I covered up. Everyone told me: ‘Cover up when you’re in Jenin!’ ”

After Betty leaves, Marah, a native of Jenin, mutters, “She means we are backwards” — and then wins the race herself. It’s doubly satisfying because Marah does not desire or even have access to the glamour to which Betty is accustomed; she doesn’t even have a race car. Instead, her dad helps her shave every extra ounce off the passenger car her mom uses to give driving lessons. When Marah wins, the crowd’s chant (“Jenin, let’s go!”) is a cheer not only of victory but of affirmation and visibility — many of the spectators are residents of the camp.

Maysoon and Noor, both born in Jerusalem, have IDs that allow them to travel to Israel; the women note how clean and well-kept the infrastructure is on the western side of the wall. They crave the sea, so crucial to Palestinian identity, but they don’t have West Bank IDs, as Marah and Betty do. As Betty leverages her light skin and blond hair for the press, it’s easy as a viewer to scorn her, to blame a woman for making visible the work of fitting in. There’s something rich and more complicated in the dynamic, and it’s underexplored by Fares.

But although Speed Sisters is not comprehensive, it’s vital. Two images reverberate long after the credits scroll: a forlorn Marah on an empty street in Jenin, buying bright-pink cotton candy from an old man who keeps the machine in the trunk of his hatchback; and, later, Marah on Noor’s shoulders, the two women rushing into a crowd to celebrate their victory. Fares has a keen eye for intimacy, populism, and resistance — all things for which American viewers, now especially, are sure to be hungry.

Speed Sisters

Directed by Amber Fares

First Run Features

Opens February 10, Cinema Village