After the success of a Festival of Films in Leeds in 2015 we can enjoy a new programme of works that give expression to the long struggle of the Palestinian people for land and freedom. The full programme is on a Webpage of the Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. As last year the Festival commences with a film screening in the Leeds International Film Festival. This is Ambulance / Ambulance Gaza (2016). The film is a powerful and personal account of witnessing the Zionist war on Gaza in 2014. The young filmmaker, Mohamed Jabaly, has made a record of his time with the ambulance crews who braved the streets of the war zone to aid the sick and injured. The film won a Sunbird Award at the recent ‘Days of Cinema’ Festival in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.
The film is graphic and has been given a 18 Certificate. There are three screenings at the Leeds Everyman starting this Friday November 4th. Note, the Everyman had definite limitations as a ‘cinema’: the sightlines are not always good so pick your seat in order to read the subtitles.
The Festival will continue through November and early December with films that include women racing drivers and footballers, skate boarders and kite flying. A rich variety of the vibrant Palestine culture under occupation.
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.