Inherently, sports make for good movies. The classic theme of an individual or team facing obstacles, overcoming great adversity and ultimately triumphing – as huge crowds cheer fast-paced action and the human spirit is tested – is an easy, compelling and successful one that has pretty much written its own expansive genre.
But the best sports films, especially when it comes to documentaries, are the ones that point their cameras away from the play on the field and focus their narrative on the characters – using the competition as a vehicle to tell the human stories of people prevailing despite difficulties. After all, we can see the games and the races, themselves; we watch movies for something more.
"Speed Sisters," one of the selections in the Milwaukee Film Festival’s new Sportsball! category, knows this. Portraying the first all-female race car team in the Middle East, the documentary has at its hands a ready-made and undeniably interesting plotline: five trailblazing women challenging conventional stereotypes and taking on serious roadblocks – literally and figuratively – in a male-dominated sport and a patriarchal Palestinian society, with little support except from each other.
But "Speed Sisters" isn’t content with just satisfying the easy tropes – if you can call enduring sexism, oppressive military occupation, poverty, discrimination, poor equipment and facilities, all while trying to win street races, tropes; instead, it takes us inside the unique background, personality, journey and ambition of each of the five racers, interweaving their life stories on and off the track.
There’s Mona, the first girl to join the Palestinian Motorsport Federation team in 2006 – one man says it was strange at first to watch women race, then "it was cool to see." Older than the others, the lighthearted Mona’s "specialty" is getting into collisions and she seemingly drives more for fun than for results. She talks eagerly about marrying her beloved fiancé while trying on a wedding dress and tells another team member she would, if asked, choose her husband over racing.
Then there’s Noor, the athletic badass who says, "I don’t race for trophies; I race for the release," though she struggles with making the right turns on the track. She does a TV interview and, on social media, is criticized and called masculine-looking, but doesn’t seem to care about the chauvinism. "Driving cars, it’s so me," she says early on in her nearly accent-less English. "My style, my hair, my personality." Spunky, sporty and energetic, Noor is more inclined to drift racing, which, she notes, is "about angle, power, speed."
There’s Maysoon, the protective captain who tries to keep the team together in contentious times off the track and advocates for its members during controversy at races. With a traditional family pressuring her to give up racing and marry a man, the thoughtfully independent Maysoon says she will wait to marry the "right person" with "the right traits." A responsible storeowner who generously buys toys from children at the military checkpoint on her way out of Palestine, Maysoon eventually does meet the man of her dreams, a racer from Jordan.
Then there’s Betty, the blonde bombshell and self-described "brand" who says "I give the Racing Federation a good image." Glamorous, intelligent and well-heeled from an influential family of racers, she receives the most media attention and appears to be resented at times by other team members. Despite the ostensible pressure by society to cover up, Betty is the face – and body – of female racing in Palestine, determined to win and "compete with the guys," rather than only the girls.
And there’s Marah, the de-facto protagonist and most sympathetic racer. The 19-year-old reigning women’s champion is from the socially conservative and economically depressed refugee city of Jenin and has the support of a loving, impoverished family – especially her endearing father, who works tirelessly to give his children opportunities he never had. Marah is driven by the desire to make her hometown proud, though she hopes her racing success can propel her out of Jenin and allow her to represent Palestine in international competition.
The women battle men – including the almost comically bureaucratic Palestinian chairman, Khaled – as well as each other, with Betty and Marah becoming the top racers and legitimate rivals who receive stereotypically unsurprising treatment from the Racing Federation. There are feminist elements, social issues and internal struggles.
But pervading the entire film – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly – is the geopolitical undercurrent of life amid ongoing military occupation in the West Bank, and the resulting tension and insecurity, which racing helps alleviate for the girls. The checkpoints are a recurring problem. "It’s ironic," a TV anchor says laughingly. "It’s easy to race cars anywhere but Palestine, because there are military checkpoints everywhere." At one point, a team member is shot by soldiers.
"How much will we let the occupation affect our lives," asks Marah. "What are we supposed to do, stop living?"
And in the end, what’s most rewarding about "Speed Sisters" is that it doesn’t answer those questions. The best thing about the film isn’t that it gives us so many captivating storylines of adversity faced or victory accomplished, but rather that the film doesn’t try to extrapolate some contrived thematic conclusion from it all. It tells a great story with skillful cinematography and engaging characters that is thrilling, inspiring and enjoyable.
With just enough tire-screeching race scenes and a thumping, indie-female Middle Eastern hip-hop soundtrack, "Speed Sisters" is as much fun to watch as it might be fodder for social and political discussion. And coming in at 80 minutes, the breakneck narrative moves as fast as the souped-up cars.
This isn’t an NFL Films video of the Packers beating the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl; it’s about female street racers in Palestine. The hook isn’t the sport or the game or the team; it’s the people and their lives, how they interact and experience the world, and how they make you feel. As the Milwaukee Film Festival notes before each Sportsball! selection, "A great sports movie puts you in the moment of an amazing achievement, tells the story of the athlete making the achievement, or gives you a perspective on sports that previously you never realized existed."
With Noor, Mona, Maysoon, Betty and Morah, director Amber Fares does just that. And you have one more chance to see it before it leaves Milwaukee, on Friday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. in the Oriental Theatre.
"Speed Sisters" = **** out of ****
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.