Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia; Middle East, that used to be known as the cradle of civilization, is now a part of horrific reality, that most likely will take ages to recover from the madness occurring there. This is why watching Amber Fares‘ SPEED SISTERS provides a balming effect for the soul where you, as a viewer, can see which direction this beautiful part of the world takes itself.
Since the film is open in Toronto and can be seen at the Bloor Hot Docs Theater, I had the great pleasure to sit down with the filmmaker Amber Fares to talk about “Speed Sisters”, Israeli check point, and the challenges all five girls had to face in order to achieve their goals.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you get involved in this film?
Amber Fares: I was born and raised in Canada, from a town in Northern Alberta. My grandparents came from Lebanon and we say we grew up eating Hummus and playing a lot of hockey. After 9/11 there was a lot of push back towards urban Muslim communities and my family was affected by it. It made me sort of rethink of my Arab heritage. I took a look around and I just realized the way that Arabs and Muslims will be portrayed in the media was so different than the experience I had in the house I grew up in. Quite a few years later back I ended up in Palestine and lived there a couple of years making films and short films. A friend had asked if I wanted to go to a race and I just thought it was really strange that there were races in the occupied West Bank because of military occupation. So we go to Bethlehem and there was this huge tarmac at the top of the hill and an amazing festive spirit with tons of people watching. In the middle of all that these women were putting on helmets to race and I just thought, “Wow that’s really unusual.” I saw an opportunity to tell a story about Palestine, the Middle East that it completely unexpected.
MOVIEMOVESME: Given the ultra-sensitive geographical location, what were the difficulties you experienced while filming?
Amber Fares: The political scenario and the military checkpoint causes difficulties, not a lot for me as I’m a Canadian citizen but for the speed sisters it obviously causes a lot of problems. There’s a system of segregating Palestinians by the form of ids issued by the Israeli government and three of the girls have what’s called a West Bank id. What that means is that they can’t cross particular checkpoints that go to Jerusalem etc. But there’s another set of ids called Jerusalem ids for people who were born or whose families are from Jerusalem; Palestinians with those are allowed to cross those checkpoints. Two of the speed sisters had that type of id which allowed them to drive freely.
MOVIEMOVESME: What does it mean for a Middle-Eastern woman to be a racer?
Amber Fares: To tell you the truth these women aren’t the first women racers in the Middle-East. There’s a quite a famous racer from Iran, there’s been racers from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon. This is a very male oriented sport and having this many women racers especially from the Middle-East is very unusual.
MOVIEMOVESME: A lot of people here in the West don’t know or completely understand what life is like under occupation. Can you talk about that?
Amber Fares: Life under occupation for a majority of the Palestinians is much harder than what we showed in this film. This is quite an affluential segment of Palestinian society. By no means does it reflect life under occupation. But in general what it is you lose a lot of control in your daily life. Your mobility is controlled, where you can go, what you can do. Your identification is controlled; you’re split from your family. The military isn’t present all the times but it can be anywhere, so it’s very unpredictable but constant at the same time.
MOVIEMOVESME: In your film we saw that Marah’s father was very open-minded. How important do you think is family support to be able to pursue something like this?
Amber Fares: They would not be able to do what they were doing without the support or it would be a lot harder. But for example somebody like Maysoon, whose family wasn’t thrilled about her driving. This isn’t in the film but she told me the story that she was working with the UN when she got into driving because she worked with Khaled, the head of the federation. He invited her to a workshop where they had trainers from the UK. So she told her parents that she was taking a driving course to learn how to drive safely. When she went to race, the journalists took pictures of all the women racers and her picture was in the paper. So her dad saw her picture with the race car suit on. But she worked, had her own car and to a certain degree she was able to break away from her parents a little bit. Finally, her parents started to come along but it was much more difficult for her as opposed to those whose families were incredibly supportive. There is definitely conservatism in the Middle-East but it is here as well and I think my point of the film is that we tend to paint Middle-East with one specific narrative and one specific brush and there’s not one narrative that can tell any one place and this is just their perspective on that. We need to keep in mind that the refugees that come in are people, they have their dreams and are sensitive just like everyone else.
MOVIEMOVESME: How do you think films will change the opinion of Canadians towards the Middle East?
Amber Fares: I think it’s the power of story; it’s just something that maybe contradicts what they think, break stereotypes or whatever it is, just exposure of other things. I think storytelling, in films particularly, is a powerful tool for doing that. I think it is just as important to show this film in the Middle-East as well and it has been and it has been received quite well. Thee thing is that Palestine is controlled by Israel and people outside have no access to it, so people in the Middle-East themselves were equally surprised at the story as people in North America.