For her first foray into full-length documentary filmmaking, director Amber Fares snagged not just an original topic — the first all-woman race car driving team from the Middle East — but a pack of compelling and original subjects who speedily illuminate Fares’ inside look at a burgeoning sport and the women who love it. Although Fares’ film offers an intimate and often very personal look at the Speed Sisters, it struggles to keep up the kind of momentum that should be readily built into an uplifting sports documentary with high stakes to spare.
The Speed Sisters are a Palestinian race car driving team comprised entirely of ladies, and Fares wisely turns her camera on a wide variety of intriguing subjects, including champion Marah, the dogged Noor, the barrier-breaking Mona and born-into-it Betty. The racers may have joined up with the Sisters and the sport for different reasons, but they are all bonded by their love for the sport and each other. “Speed Sisters” is nothing if not a love letter to the possibilities that sports open up for its participants, no matter their gender or nationality.
But that’s not to say that “Speed Sisters” isn’t appropriately interested in covering the unique situations that an all-female racing team from the Middle East often finds itself in, and Fares and her subjects frequently find themselves in strange environments that speak to much larger issues. The Speed Sisters have trouble finding sufficient practice areas — they joke that it’s hard in Palestine, thanks to all those damn military checkpoints slowing them down — and while that particular problem is first raised with an admirable can-do pluck, it eventually becomes indicative of the area’s larger political problems. During one practice run, a Sister is struck by tear-gas canister, all caught on camera. It’s a small, wild moment that speaks to the bigger narratives at play in the space that the Sisters occupy.
Yet Fares is mostly concerned with her immediate subjects, and they provide enough material to keep the film zooming along for at least its first two acts. Each Sister has her own racing backstory, and most of them make it clear why these ladies have succeeded: they are tough. One racer’s family has delayed a long-hoped-for land purchase in order to finance a new car for her, another has shunned scads of suitors in hopes of finding a man who can appreciate her sport (and seems fully prepared to go through life without a mate should the right one never come along). Another Sister uses racing as a release for years of pent up athletic frustrations, while yet another speedster is hoping that her career will make her family proud. All of them wonder about how their chosen sport colors the way they are viewed as women.
Audiences don’t need to know much about race car driving to understand the tricky rules and unexpectedly complex tracks (again, space is an issue, they do what they can to get around it) at play in “Speed Sisters,” and Fares neatly weaves in tricked out on-screen graphics and text to help distill down key races. Fares makes it easy to know — and love — her subjects and their chosen pursuit, but even with all that built-in affection, the film lacks the kind of forward momentum that could really kick it into overdrive. “Speed Sisters” is trapped between a desire to colorfully and fully paint its subjects and giving them an endgame to strive for, a final lap that is never quite finished.
“Speed Sisters” will be available in limited release and on iTunes on February 10.