“Their superheroes were given names like Superman. We call ours – Palestinians”, a meme from a Muslim activist organisation reads. A new documentary, Speed Sisters, introduces a new gang of five Palestinian women, or quasi-superhero “sistahs”, who are the Middle East’s first drifting racing team.
In a way, Palestinian women have become a fetishised trope in art and cinema, from iconic Palestinian fighter Leila Khaled, over Eila Suleiman’s fantastic ninja in Divine Intevention (2002), to artist Larissa Sansour, who re-enacted comic house Marvel’s Nonel and Vovel in a heroically staged mission to save the Palestinian homeland. Amber Fares’ Speed Sisters adds to this repertoire of Palestinian heroines, oscillating between down-to-earth documentary and high-octane glamour nearing fantasy.
On the London launch at the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, Fares explained that she sees the film as a post-9/11 film. Growing up in the Lebanese diaspora in Canada, she became conscious of a disconnect between stereotypical images of Arab women as passive victims, and the strong women she encountered in her own life. To pay homage to the latter, Fares decided to do her debut feature-length film on the five women racing through Palestine’s West Bank: Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.
While representations of Arab and Muslim Women and their empowerment are now somewhat of a cliche, Speed Sisters is a more positive example bucking this trend. The film offers itself as a witty commentary on sexuality, consumerism and Islamicate phenomena; that is, regions in which Muslims are culturally dominant.
Swinging to an old high street, the camera glances over a shop sign reading “Angelina”, named after the actress Angelina Jolie, a reminder that glamour never gives in to oppression. In another scene, Betty browses an Internet forum with comments on the sisters’ adventures, before laughing off a user who prophetically declares the sisters’ speed racing a sign of the imminent apocalypse.
Speed Sisters feels like personal diary, and viewers are treated to an empathic cinematic experience throughout. Remarking on this, Fares declares in the post-screening Q&A, “relatability” matters, referring to the audience as “your friend and your sister”. The five women racing through Palestine are beautifully strong yet vulnerable. They are skydivers, street fighters, gangstas and young sisters, all at once. In a particularly poignant scene, we see the Israeli Defence Force hit Betty with a tear gas canister. Later on, graphic depictions of her bruises are shown: “No matter how glamorous you look, they still hit you in the ass”.
But while the documentary is steeped in reality, each of the sisters could be a new generation of Tekken characters, a video game popularised in the 1990s. The aesthetics of Speed Sisters, including score tables, flashing credits, and the pumping noise of raw metal reminiscent of Arab film soundtracks, add to the video game feel. Cars screech and swerve and, at times, Speed Sisters feels more like a Palestinian version of Grand Theft Auto, or Need for Speed with Palestinian women behind the wheel.
Every racing scene is infused with adrenaline. However, we’re not to forget where these five women are. In one scene, one of the heroines takes us through an Israeli checkpoint and the suffocating claustrophobia of Israel’s occupation is laid bare. The iron cages of a checkpoint spread across the screen, permeating every corner, before the sisters are plunged back into the open roads to catch a breath of freedom, however temporary.
Reflecting on this in the Q&A, the director laments, “so much of their life is out of their control”, referring to the ever present reality of military occupation. But there is always a heroic defiance and resilience through the screeching tires hitting the gas.
All in all, Speed Sisters is an inspiring, affirmative, must-see cinematic tribute to resistant sisterhood in Palestine and worlds beyond.
Watch a trailer of Speed Sisters here.
Speed Sisters is currently on general release in UK cinemas. For screenings click here.
The film is also available on pay-per-view on youtube and other online services.
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Hamja Ahsan is an activist, artist and curator. He co-founded the DIY Cultures festival. and Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights award for Free Talha Ahsan campaign. His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in 2016.
This review was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article, or feature please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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