Feminism | Posted by Angela Liu on 03/9/2017
The Fight Against the Single Story: ‘Speed Sisters’ Amber Fares and Rabab Haj Yahya on Sisterhood, Resilience, and the Importance of Human Connection
Being the first takes courage. Putting yourself in a position of vulnerability, stepping out of your comfort zone, and risking failure can be terrifying—but also hugely rewarding. It’s an experience five women in Palestine who formed the Middle East’s first completely female race-car-driving team know well—and one at the center of the documentary Speed Sisters, which tracks the team’s journey over the course of two racing seasons, as they strive to better themselves, each other, and their communities.
When I watched Speed Sisters, I was amazed at how easily I connected with each of the characters even though they live half a world away from me. The film’s unique authenticity and warmth is in huge part thanks to the collaboration of two women: director and producer Amber Fares and film editor Rabab Haj Yayha. Fares has long worked with global organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations. She believes in personal storytelling as a means of exploring difficult social issues and in the importance of allowing strong, personal connections to form between the subjects of a documentary and its viewers—ideals which are flawlessly executed in Speed Sisters. Haj Yayha is a New York-based film editor who was born and raised in Palestine. She joined the filmmaking team as the film editor, and lent her personal knowledge of Palestinian culture and society to the editing process to ultimately help craft an insightful, heartwarming, and inspiring documentary.
I spoke with Fares and Haj Yayha about their filmmaking process, the experience of living in Palestine and working with the Speed Sisters, and the global impact of their film.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Angela: What was most rewarding about making this documentary?
Amber Fares: I think it has been the audience’s reaction to the girls. It was an honor just to be able to tell these girls’ stories, because they’re such a unique group of women—super inspirational, funny, and warm. But the reaction from the audiences has been so uniquely rewarding. Right after we premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto, we took the film to Palestine and held a screening there with over 700 people. Throughout the film people were clapping and cheering, and there was a standing ovation. The film plays all over the world, but I think for Arab audiences in particular, because of the nuances in the language and culture in the film, people really respond to and identify with it. The film shows an often-hidden side to Middle Eastern culture. The jokes that the girls in the film make; the interactions between Mara and her dad… It all really resonates with an Arabic-speaking audience. So for me, bringing the film back to Palestine and getting that sort of reception was the most rewarding part.
Rabab Haj Yahya: I love when people come out of the film and talk about the characters they loved or tell me that it was really eye-opening. I was at a screening a couple of weeks ago when the film opened in New York City. Just being there, sitting with the audience, who were incredibly engaged throughout the film, was amazing. And that goes back to the idea of this film’s importance. Speed Sisters brings people and stories together across borders, cultures, and languages. As a Palestinian woman, that’s really special for me.
I loved that the women in this documentary live half a world away from me, but I could still relate to their perseverance, resilience, and most of all, the importance and power of sisterhood. When making the documentary, how did you connect with the women in the film? What did you learn from them?
Amber: [Laughs] That’s a good question. I connected with each one of them in different ways. For example, Maysoon ended up becoming a very, very close friend of mine. She was closer to my age, and I saw some of the choices she was having to make that were very similar to the choices that I had to make. Choices that surrounded being married, and having children vs. not having children. Asking questions like, What does your life look like when it may not take the path you thought it would take? These girls have so many reasons to be down on things, but they’re trying their hardest to create a spectacular life with the hand that they were dealt. And you have to respect that. And for me, the type of life they live there under the conditions that they live in… that’s one of the biggest lessons that applies to all of Palestine—that in these places that are ridden with war and poverty, there is life. And that needs to be respected and that needs to be celebrated.
Did making the film help you explore your own identities?
Amber: I think this film was a personal journey. There are a lot of kinds of films you can make in a place like Palestine, but I really wanted to make a very personal film. And largely, that came from my own upbringing and background as a Canadian and Lebanese woman. Spending time in Palestine reconnected me to the Arab culture that I grew up with. But I also grew up very Canadian, and I think it gave me a better understanding of and appreciation for my heritage.
One thing that I felt was never portrayed in the media was that Palestinian culture is a very warm culture. Yet when you see how people from the Middle East are portrayed on TV, it’s a very particular narrative. More than often, the Middle Eastern character is the villain and their story centers around terrorism. So when I came across the Speed Sisters, they just seemed like such amazing subjects. They’re doing something completely unusual, not only for the Middle East, but anywhere—can you name five female race car drivers in the United States? And the characters themselves, I saw myself in each one of those characters, to some degree, and I think everybody does. The universality of the story and of the characters really drew me in. Ultimately, I think the film shows another side to a place that is portrayed in a very particular narrative.
Rabab: I am proud of the film because it highlights the identities of women that are usually overlooked by Western media. I come from a small town where my parents were very supportive, my community was very supportive, so it’s great to see that these characters are portrayed in that way. The mainstream media’s narrative is always that women in the Middle East are repressed, that we have no rights—if you wear a hijab, for example, that means you’re a repressed woman. And I think showing Maysoon going to pray, while also seeing all their other layers—that’s what reality is. We are all individuals with different backgrounds and experiences, and we can wear a hijab and also be a champion race car driver.
That makes me think of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk in which she talks about the danger of the single story—of a culture or society only being represented by one perspective in the media. I think this film is special in that it really breaks that down for Palestinian woman.
Rabab: Exactly! So often, we only see one piece of the story. And that leads to people thinking that all women all across the Middle East are the same. For example, that none of us can drive because women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to. Meanwhile, Palestinian women are very powerful and they play a strong role in the liberation movement. I think this film just shows that each woman has her own story and traditions, and I found these girls really inspiring. We got to know Marah and Maysoon and the other three girls, but there are so many more strong, driven, inspiring girls like that in Palestine. There are so many amazing individual stories. I think the film is a good representation of taking five individual stories and showing how diverse they are and how they have different experiences and emphasizing that each woman has her own individual identity.
The filmmaking team seems like a really dynamic, diverse group. How did your diverse backgrounds impact your collaboration with each other and your final product?
Amber: We just wanted to make sure that the film was authentic and that it played really well to a Middle Eastern audience, first and foremost. It’s very easy to make a film and to take it away and edit it, and when you take it back, it doesn’t feel like it’s of that region. For me, it was really important that I was making this film about Palestine first and foremost for Palestinians and for people of the Middle East. So I really wanted to have that authenticity, and with our team, we were able to do that.
Specifically, I think we did two really important things. One is we had an all-female crew, which was really useful in dealing in personal issues with the girls. We created this bond and safe space for the girls to communicate. They could feel safe and comfortable in front of the camera. And that really comes out in the intimacy of the film; in the relationships and interactions that you see. There’s a lot of emotion. The other was bringing Rabab Haj Yahya on as the editor. She is an amazing, super-talented editor. I had spent a lot of time in Palestine, but my Arabic wasn’t great, and just having somebody who was Palestinian and who knew the nuances of the place and the language really helped us craft a story. I’m not sure if we would have been able to do what we did with any other editor. There is such a difference between seeing what is written on a piece of paper and fully understanding the nuances of it, and it was key that we made sure we had a really strong Palestinian voice.
Rabab: I speak the language and I come from the culture, so in working on this film, I had that kind of insider experience. I can add a lot of nuance to the translation; to the little things in conversations. For example, in the film there’s this joke that the grandfather says to Marah when he sees her, and it’s a really funny, cute sentence that’s said in Arabic—but it’s really hard to translate. Sometimes, when you translate things you can lose what’s actually being said. But now, in screenings, when that part of the film comes on screen and you hear the laughter and giggles in the crowd, I know that there are Arabs in the audience—it’s just a cultural thing that they will get. That makes the film even more of something that portrays reality than something that documents things from a distance.
Angela: I’m interested in this idea that telling stories on a personal, human level is a great way to explore social issues. In making the film, how did you find a balance between telling human stories and navigating the complicated politics surrounding Palestine and Israel?
Amber: That’s a really good question. That balance really came out in the edit. One decision that we came to very early on was that we were first and foremost telling the story of these women. There are entire films dedicated to just the political situation, and they’re able to cover those topics in their entirety. We wanted to tell the stories of these girls. And how we dealt with the politics was we brought it in as it bumped into the girls’ daily lives. It was a show, not tell, type of philosophy. You can’t live in Palestine without its politics playing a massive role in your life, so we just allowed their lives to unfold and let those politics come in naturally.
Angela: Could you touch on why you think Speed Sisters is important especially in the context of a government that seeks to oppress diversity—and especially people of the Muslim faith and Middle Eastern countries of origin?
Amber: Speed Sisters humanizes people from the Middle East in a time when they’re dehumanized. It’s really as simple as that. It’s really hard to dehumanize someone you know. And you come out of this film knowing these four women. It exposes you to another scenario. We are so quick to paint the Middle East with a single brush, and it’s like everywhere else in the world where there are nuances and different stories you can tell. Not one story defines all of Palestine. It was important for us to dig in a bit deeper and to allow these other stories to see the light.
Rabab: I think it’s so important at this time to tell personal stories. We all have access to the news and mainstream media, but people connect best through personal stories. During screenings, you would hear people say “Oh, their kitchen looks just like my aunt’s kitchen!” or “Oh, she reminds me of my best friend.” Connecting with people from other cultures and other countries and thinking that “oh, this reminds me of this thing in my own life” is really important. It just shows that you could be Muslim, you could be Christian, you could wear a hijab, you could not—we’re all different, but in the end we have all of these things in common. We all have things that we’re passionate about, things that we aspire to do. And I think what I like about Speed Sisters is it offers a universal opportunity to connect. Anyone can watch the film and say, “Oh, she’s just like me. And it just so happens that she lives in a different place and grew up in a different culture. But that’s my story.” And I think Speed Sisters brings, for 80 minutes, an ability for the audience to be taken to a different place and shown these characters that they can connect with emotionally.
Finally, if you were to give people one reason that they should watch the film, what would it be?
Amber: It’s a wild ride! The film is incredibly entertaining in a lot of unexpected ways, and if you’re at all interested in the Middle East or in race car driving, even, it’s just a really fun, inspirational story.