Film, Family, and Fast Cars
It’s a long road from Grand Prairie to Ramallah, but sometimes it takes quite a journey to get to where you’re meant to be. Amber Fares, the Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker recently premiered her documentary on the first all-female racing team in the Middle East, the Palestinian ‘Speed Sisters’, at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, and the Canadian Arab Institute had the opportunity to speak with her about her life and what led her to chronicle this inspiring story.
A third generation Canadian born and raised in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Fares describes herself as being “100% Lebanese and 100% Canadian,” going on to say, “We played a lot of hockey, but our grandmothers also lived with us and we ate a lot of hummus as well.” With the nearest significant Lebanese community being in Edmonton, Fares’ family certainly stood out, and it was an additional culture shock when she left small-town Alberta to pursue a B.A. in Sociology at the University of Western Ontario.
Fares marks her interest in political issues as beginning after 9/11; amidst the discrimination felt in the North American Arab community, she recognized that she and her family were expected to defend their identity in a way that her friends from (even more recent) immigrant backgrounds such as Poland or Chile were not.
This led to Fares’ decision, in 2002, to return to Lebanon, having first visited in 1994, to work with Palestinian refugees in the Beqaa Valley. Having recently taken up photography, she documented some of the children at these camps, later using these images in a photo essay for the CBC. This project helped Fares discover what she describes as “the power of picture and story to convey a different side to issues [that] we aren’t necessarily aware [of].” After this, she spent several years serving on the board of ‘Peace It Together’, an organization which promotes cross-cultural dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth through film and media – an experience which convinced her to leave marketing and to return again to the Middle East.
What began as a six month plan to experience life in Ramallah gradually became a permanent move. Fares enrolled in a filmmaking course at the Gulf Island Film and Television Institute, and used this as a launching point to pitch ideas for short films to NGOs in Palestine. One of these, documenting a hip hop group from a Jerusalem refugee camp, was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival and at festivals around the world.
It was at this time that she first encountered the Speed Sisters, and felt inspired to tell a Palestinian story that was unlike most; not framed by the occupation, but a personal and intimate look at the lives of these incredible women. “The fact that it was sports that was, no pun intended, the vehicle, it just made that story so accessible,” she explains, recalling her sports background in Grande Prairie. Fares was also able to observe the surprising support given to the “Sisters” by the men in the racing community, as they were given space to compete and encouraged to do so. “There wasn’t as much pushback… as people thought there would be, and that I guess [that] I thought there would be as well,” comparing it to the struggle in Canada for women to break into the typically male-dominated sport of hockey.
Now that ‘Speed Sisters’ is finished, Fares has no immediate plans, though she’s interested in doing something “closer to Canada” in the future. She would also like to encourage homegrown support for North American Arab filmmakers working in the Middle East – “I would like there to be more cohesiveness, and support towards the arts… there needs to be something in place that supports these types of projects.”
Speed Sisters is still being shown at festivals and in communities around the world, having just had its first screening in Fares’ hometown of Grande Prairie.