I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.
Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.
The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.
Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:
While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)
Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.
Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!
This film featured in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival: it is also the first film featuring in a Palestine Film Festival in Leeds. It provided an auspicious start. The film is extremely well made, offers an imaginative combination of techniques, has a funny but also sad narrative and a strong political content.
The basic story occurred in the First Palestinian Intifada; importantly before the signing of the Oslo Accords and the setting up of a Palestinian Authority in the lands occupied by the Israel. The small village of Beit Sahour was involved in a boycott of Israeli products and in a tax boycott. As part of this the people invested in 18 cows, bought from a kibbutznik. The people learned how to care for the cows and commenced providing Intifada milk. But the Israeli authorities, concerned about the example this set during the Intifada declared the cows a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel”. So a cat and mouse struggle developed as the Palestinians tried to protect their livestock and maintain their action.
The film uses an ingenious combination of documentary interviews with those involved in the events, archival footage, drawings, black-and-white stop-motion animation [Claymation] as well as re-enactments. One of the most enjoyable parts of the animation are the four cows – Rikva, Ruth, Lola and Goldie – who are voiced by performers. Originally somewhat Zionist and looking down on the Palestinians, they become part of the village and victims along with the Palestinians.
The politics of this story are often quite subtle, though the oppressive Israeli actions are clearly depicted. The import of a struggle waged by ordinary Palestinians under direct occupation is emphasised, as is the intelligent and collective action in which they are involved. There are bitter comments on how the later Oslo Accords disempowered ordinary Palestinians in the struggle. (Check out Al Jazeera’s The Price of Oslo).
The key player in the film was Amer Shomali, brought up in exile, but later returning to his home village, Beit Sahour. His initial ideas were supported by Montreal-based producer Ina Fichman and then by the co-director on the film, Canadian Paul Cowan, who also scripted the film.
The film is certainly at times very witty, but it is also very moving. The courage and inventiveness of the Palestinians is impressive, whilst the members of the Israeli occupation are remarkably honest about their motivations and actions. The film got a warm response from the audience who filled the Town Hall’s Albert Room. The film is marketed by the National Film Board of Canada, that auspicious institution responsible for many fine documentaries.
The Palestinian Film Festival, organised by Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, continues into December. Meanwhile this film remains a really worthwhile 75 minutes, if you can catch it. It is in colour and the Arabic, English, Hebrew and French soundtrack is covered by English subtitles. (Co-produced by Palestine, Canada and France 2015).
The film is screening at the Leeds International Film Festival on Sunday 15th November at 20.30 in the Town Hall Albert Room. You can check it out at:
Apart from being an important film about the Palestinian Struggle it is also the first in a series of films that are part of a locally-based Palestinian Film Festival organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. This film will be followed up after the festival by:
Amreeka, 2009 – which follows the experiences of a young mother and her family who migrates to the USA, chronicling their search for ‘home’ between their heritage and the new world.
Two Blue Lines, 2015. A documentary that chronicles the long travail of the Palestinian people since the beginning of the Zionist occupation, but through the eyes of oppositional Israelis.
Divine Intervention, 2002. A surreal view of the occupation and Palestinian resistance. The film was involved in a furore when the Hollywood Academy succumbed to pressures regarding the film’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It is worth seeing as a fine and political film.
Open Bethlehem, 2014 – a film that explores a particular response to occupation, involving the heritage sites in the famous town.
Given that even with the increased production of Palestinian films there are rare opportunities to see them, this is an excellent programme to follow.
Open Bethlehem is a difficult film to write about. It is currently being shown in the UK, supported by various organisations and celebrities. It is planned for a release in North America on the same basis in December 2015. The film shows many important aspects of the history of Palestine and in particular what has happened in the isolated Palestinian city of Bethlehem. I want to support the film in many of its objectives and I was happy to support the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign group which helped to organise the screening. Unfortunately I had problems with the film ‘as a film’ and I fear these may get in the way of its presentation of very important issues and debates.
Leila Sansour is from one of Bethlehem’s most prominent families. Her father Anton Sansour set up Bethlehem University in 1973 in what was previously a Roman Catholic seminary. Leila was born in Russia when her father taught at Moscow University. She lived in Bethlehem during the 1970s and 1980s before leaving to attend universities in France, the UK and Russia. She began work in television for Al Jazheera and in 2002 returned to Bethlehem to make Jeremy Hardy v. The Israeli Army, a documentary about the resistance to the Israeli occupation (and the siege of Bethlehem) seen through the eyes of ‘an ordinary guy’ in the person of a British comedian. Sansour’s strategy in this film and Open Bethlehem has been to use celebrity figures to attract audience attention. She is married to the British novelist Nicholas Blincoe and I was surprised to see the Guardian journalist John Harris popping up in Open Bethlehem. Later on in the film, attracting international figures to Bethlehem becomes the whole point of the project. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Leila Sansour returned again to Bethlehem in 2004 intending to film the construction of the Separation Wall intended to keep the illegal Jewish settlers and the whole state of Israel ‘safe’ from Palestinian ‘incursions’. As she explains, Bethlehem is a particularly sensitive city partly because of its international status as the birthplace of Christ and because it is located relatively close to Jerusalem in part of the West Bank with good water resources. The Occupation forces have more or less isolated Bethlehem from the remainder of the West Bank. In the event, Sansour was persuaded to stay in Bethlehem by her only remaining relative, her cousin Carol who was still in the family house (after her father died, the rest of Sansour’s family left the country – like much of the Christian population of Palestine over the last twenty years). Her filming lost its focus and she became involved in an ambitious project to promote Bethlehem to the outside world, part of which involved a tourist campaign to persuade visitors to the Church of Nativity to stay overnight and enjoy other aspects of Bethlehem life, instead of coming for an hour on an Israeli bus and, as she says, “barely noticing that they are in Palestine”. The central plank of the project is a ‘Bethlehem Passport’ which announces that the bearer is a ‘citizen of an ancient international city’. These passports were sent to the Pope and other church leaders, politicians and celebrities. For a while in 2005-6 it looked like the project was going to be a success but eventually it lost momentum and funding and eventually Carol too left Bethlehem. Leila Sansour decided at this crisis point to stay on and to try to finish the film. I suspect that it was funding from the Emirates (an important production partner for recent Palestinian films) and various international arts agencies that has enabled the film to be completed and released.
The finished film is strongest in its depiction of the building of the Wall around and through the city of Bethlehem and the terrible impact on the lives of Palestinians. It is also useful in presenting the history of Bethlehem itself and of the economic problems of a city largely dependent on tourism now being effectively strangled by the occupation forces. There are two major weaknesses for me. One is technical. The material for the film was shot over several years, mainly I think on various different video formats and then combined with archive material of varying quality. I’m used to the way modern documentary films either crop or stretch Academy ratio archive film. I’m afraid we’ve rather lost that battle, but in this film there also appears to be some footage which was shot in a wider format than 16:9 and then ‘squeezed’ to fit. This looks very odd and I can’t explain it. Overall the force of the arguments should help to overcome these difficulties but I think they are compounded by what I thought were sometimes unsuitable graphics and music. More important though is the overall approach of the ‘personal story’. I know this is a feature of documentary films that is sometimes thought to make them more palatable for audiences, especially in the US (e.g. see Five Broken Cameras). However, when the personal story is that of the writer-director and effectively the ‘star’ of the film it does create a great deal of pressure. I felt in this case that it would have been better to have had at least one independent, ‘impartial’ creative input – ideally as director. As it is, there are aspects of the story that still puzzle me. For instance, the Christian communities in Bethlehem were traditionally at the centre of the city’s life, making up more than half the population but latest figures suggest that they might now be less than 20%. Why have they left? Is it simply that they are often the wealthiest families, able to emigrate? Are the Israelis purposely trying to drive them out? Are there other reasons? The three main churches, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, remain but I wasn’t sure watching the film which church the Sansours belonged to (it became clear in my post-screening research). I confess that the presence of so many celebrity figures in the film also tended to put me off. Leila Sansour does say at one point that she didn’t want to appear as “just another tourist” in Bethlehem but I would have liked to know more about the ‘ordinary people’ of the city glimpsed in some footage (I was interested in the crafts people who make the various devotional objects sold to tourists). The irony is that the ‘Open Bethlehem’ Project eventually ‘failed’ because it could not sustain funding from international bodies. Initial funding from a Swiss body was granted on condition that the project was to be about tourism and not ‘politics’. Of course, tourism and politics are inextricably connected in Bethlehem and I think that the film could have explored this more than it did. It might also have contextualised Bethlehem’s plight in the politics of the Occupation of all of Palestine.
So, there is useful material here and I do hope the film changes minds or at least informs audiences. But there are other Palestinian documentaries that deserve the exposure this film is getting and I hope they will be seen too.
Some of the problems with the material are visible in this trailer: