x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Speed Sisters documents the lives of female Arab car racers

The story of the Middle East's first all-female car racing team, Ramallah's Speed Sisters, will be chronicled by a film set for release next year.

The Speed Sisters are the first all-female racing team in the Middle East. Courtesy Amber Fares
The Speed Sisters are the first all-female racing team in the Middle East. Courtesy Amber Fares

Just a few seconds near a road should be enough to convince most that the Middle East is home to one or two (or quite a few) petrol heads, with daredevil driving in souped-up cars a pastime that has extended far beyond the race track and into rush-hour traffic.

But there are still some aspects of racing in the region that are able to turn heads, one being the idea of female drivers competing in a territory not exactly renowned for motor sports. And turn heads is exactly what the Speed Sisters - a group of women racers from Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, and the first all-female racing team in the Middle East - have managed to do. They are raising countless eyebrows through their participation in regional autocross time trials, races that involve plenty of doughnuts, zigzags and frantic manoeuvring around cones laid out on a course.

Next year, their profile is set to soar when a new documentary on the Speed Sisters is released. The film, which is currently raising funds via a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, is being put together by Amber Fares, a Canadian-Lebanese filmmaker who has been living in Ramallah for four years.

"We were doing a project for the British Consulate," says Fares on how she and her documentary film company, Soc Doc Studios, first encountered the girls. "They had created the name Speed Sisters, and had made this whole online social media campaign behind them. They hired us to do short videos, but while I got to know them, I saw that there was a bigger story."

This bigger story is something that Fares has been slowly, bit by bit, putting together since 2010, following the girls - Texan-born Noor Daoud, Ramallah native Mona Ali Ennab, Marah Zahalka from Jenin, Betty Saa'deh, who was born in Mexico and their manager Maysoon Jayyusi - across various competitions around the region, and also to their families across the West Bank.

"The first year, we just kind of ran around with a camera," she admits. "But then I was accepted into a producers' workshop in Dubai, and I remember the woman there saying that while I had an amazing story, I didn't have the experience to tell it."

Fares was given two options: either she give the story to someone else and hope that they give her a spot on the crew, or - seeing as she was already there - to take a camera and see what she could do.

"So that's what I did, and I realised I didn't really know what I was doing," Fares says. The film soon attracted a producer - the UK-based Bungalow Town Productions - and while there was initial talk to bring in another director, plans quickly changed. "It became apparent that it wasn't the sort of film that you could just come over for two weeks, do some production and then leave," says Fares. "And I was shooting a lot of the stuff, so it ended up with me directing."

As you might expect, the documentary won't just focus on the racing, but the lives of the girls and the situation around them.

"The race is sort of the background for their story," says Fares. "It's a very good vehicle, no pun intended, for getting into their society and seeing what things are like in Palestine, to change a lot of stereotypes. They're very exceptional women, but I think the things they experience publically are more mainstream than we would think. I can see issues I've dealt with or am dealing with through their lives."

While Fares doesn't want to make an overtly political film that sets out to make a statement, politics are definitely going to come into play. "Because they come into play in their lives on a daily basis, in terms of choices and decisions to go and come, whether they're driving or not. Some can cross the wall and go into Jerusalem, others can't."

The sisters have been blessed with hugely supportive families, particularly for the youngest, Marah Zahalka, who comes from the notoriously conservative town of Jenin in the north of the West Bank. "Her father is from the refugee camps. They are from Jenin in the truest sense. But what they do to support the dreams of their children, to be able to provide them with a life and options of choice and freedom in a place where that isn't always taken for granted, is amazing."

Fares admits the footage taken over the first two years has been pretty much discarded, and that the Indiegogo campaign - which hopes to raise US$30,000 (Dh110,000) - is to help finish filming the rest of the current race season, which ends in November. "We want a couple of really big shoots, Fast and Furious-style footage of the races and cars."

As for the music, Fares already has one big name in mind. "In an ideal world, I'd get MIA to give us the rights to use Bad Girls." And if it came off, she'd put it together with tracks from Arab artists for a soundtrack. "Ideally, I'd have the proceeds from that go towards women in sports in the Middle East."

And has following the Speed Sisters turned Fares into a petrol-head herself? "Not really. I did go with three of the girls to Silverstone [in the UK] earlier in the year and drove in a Lotus with one of the professionals. I actually got a bit car sick."

To help the Speed Sisters documentary, visit www.indiegogo.com/speedsisters. The appeal ends August 8.