The documentary opens like many sports films: amid screeching tires and daredevil engine vrooms, we meet the stars, who have dedicated their lives to racing cars. But these five drivers are not your typical racers — they grip their steering wheels with bright red nail polish, pull their helmets on over masses of curls, and pose for the camera in giant, fashionable shades.
Meet the Speed Sisters, the first all-female race-car driving team in the Middle East. These five friends are out to conquer the male-dominated sport of racing, starting with their home turf, Palestine.
The new film, by director Amber Fares, follows the Speed Sisters as they face the difficulties of life and racing in that embattled territory, going up against logistics and security challenges, male racers — and each other — to win the chance to compete in Jordan.
“I loved cars since I was like really young …[but] I never thought I would be a racer. I thought that was impossible,” Noor Dauod, 24, said over coffee in New York City with Fares and the film’s producer, Jessica Devaney. “I played so many different sports, I never knew what I was going to connect with. At the end, I just realized, whoa, this is what I want. This is who I am, is being in the racing world…this is what I really love.”
Dauod and her teammates, Marah Zahalka, Betty Saadeh, Mona Ali, and their captain Maysoon Jayyusi, are united by one passion: the adrenaline-inducing, thrill of professional car racing. They are a revelation not only in Palestine, but also in the wider, international race scene. “It’s like we put the pepper for the food,” says Betty, smiling, in the documentary’s opening sequence. “The race without the girls, it’s no fun.”
While Betty was born into a family of racers, the other women developed their need for speed at a fairly young age. Marah says she was always fascinated by cars, which led her to steal the family’s set of wheels — the same one her mom used to teach driving lessons — when she was 11 years old. She rounded up the neighborhood kids and made them push her in the car until she was far enough away that her parents wouldn’t hear. Then she started it up and sped around the block in first gear, burning up the engine. Instead of being mad, her father says, this is when he knew she was special and talented.
When the Speed Sisters started competing on the official Palestinian race circuit, they initially surprised the men. But, by and large, their community has been nothing short of supportive of their ambitions (save a few conservative family members). “[The male racers] really loved the idea, but I think they were shocked because you don’t see female racers racing, especially against them,” Noor said. “But they’re very supportive, very positive, very helpful, very, very nice. There’s no negative comments or anything.”
Yet, despite their general welcome into the sport, living and racing in Palestine is no easy feat. Under Israeli occupation, the region faces shortages, restrictions, and threats of violence that affect most aspects of life. The Speed Sisters are not just revolutionary athletes trying to change the face of their sport; they are also ordinary women searching for the freedom to pursue their goals.
Because of Palestine’s limited space, race-car competitions are held in places like Jenin’s vegetable market and Bethlehem’s presidential airstrip. In the confined areas, cones are set up to define the intricate race-tracks, which loop around in configurations that are confusing to the onlooker (and to some of the drivers). Fares said that she first discovered the Speed Sisters when she was living in Palestine and was invited to watch a race that took place on former leader Yasser Arafat’s old helicopter landing pad.
But beyond racing, just getting around can be an arduous—and sometimes dangerous—affair. “Kids are throwing stones and soldiers are throwing bullets,” Maysoon says on camera as she drives towards a checkpoint, wondering if the commotion up ahead is normal traffic or a sign of conflict. She later said, “The smell of teargas reminds me of my childhood.”
Because of space constraints, the drivers practice in an abandoned parking lot near an Israeli detention center. The documentary captures Noor, Maysoon, and Betty are driving to the lot when they find the road blocked by Israeli soldiers. A routine practice day turns into a frightened rush to leave the area, which results in a popped tire and Betty being hit in the back with a tear gas canister. She leaves the hospital with one giant, nasty bruise.
These day-to-day trials add up to a paradox for the women. They are all fiercely proud to represent Palestine and their specific communities, but the restrictions of occupation limit how far they can carry their ambitions in this setting.
During the film, Noor becomes interested in a specific style of racing called drifting, which is more about high-speed, fancy maneuvers and stunt-like driving than about the tightly controlled autocross style practiced in Palestine. There simply is not the space for drifting in Palestine.
After Speed Sisters finished filming, Noor moved to Dubai, one of the centers for the sport. She seemed very happy when talking about her life there, where she is the only woman competing in the major Middle East drifting tour sponsored by Red Bull. (She also teaches other women the sport, and sky dives). But she still misses Palestine. “I couldn’t see any future for me. I had to move,” Noor said. “I have a single mother there, she’s living alone…so sometimes I feel like I need to be there for her. But then I have my own life.”
After a dispute over the results of one race in the film, Marah pulls out of the next competition in protest. She lives in Jenin with her family, who moved to the city as refugees during the war in 1948. Life in Jenin is uncertain enough — they remember the days of 24-hour curfews — and Marah’s dreams are bigger than the community to which she is fiercely loyal. “All she does is go to the university and come home. That’s it. Racing opened a new world for Marah. She met new people and expanded her horizons,” Marah’s mom says, during her daughter’s protest. “Marah’s life without racing is going to be … just an ordinary life.”
It’s a relief when Marah decides to return to the official competition, but it’s also clear that her racing career can be taken away — by choices she feels compelled to make or by political circumstances beyond her control — and just how devastating this would be to her. “What we hear a lot about when we hear about the violence and conflict, it leaves out the things that people are struggling for, which are just the basic ability to live your dream and to have daily agency in your life,” Devaney said. “And so it’s a good reminder of what is the point of the struggle for freedom and equality. It’s the right to pursue your dreams without harm and violence in your communities.”
Both Devaney and Fares say this message has had a profound impact on audiences. “People seem so moved and so excited and so inspired when they leave [the movie screenings]. And that’s across the board from showing it in the Middle East, showing it in Palestine, showing it in Australia, showing it in Iceland,” said Fares with delight. “I mean, no matter where we’ve shown this film, people have the exact same reaction to it and are just really excited and inspired.”
And who wouldn’t be? They may struggle with some extraordinary obstacles, but, at the end of the day, the Speed Sisters are the “cool girls” who can’t be stopped, whose passion and bold determination are infectious. And they do it all with style, speed, and some of the most arresting nail art ever to adorn an athlete.
Speed Sisters is still being shown on the international film festival circuit.