Filmed over four years, Mayye Zayed’s fantastic observational documentary Lift Like a Girl may focus on challenging gender stereotypes in sport. Yet it becomes so much more by being a film that wears its heart on its sleeve full of two wonderful subjects.
Zebiba has been training as a weightlifter in the Egyptian city of Alexandria since she was 9-years-old. Following in the footsteps of some of the country’s most famous athletes of all time – such as Egypt’s first female, two-time Olympic medallist Abeer Abdel Rahman, and world champion Olympic athlete Nahla Ramadan. Nahla’s coach, the visionary Captain Ramadan, has a prestigious training record, with four Olympic, nine World, and 17 Pan African champions having emerged from his makeshift gym. Now that it is Zebiba’s turn to make her mark, can she put aside her youthful instincts and direct her focus to be the weightlifting champion that Captain Ramadan feels certain she is capable of becoming?
When you think of a training site that has created and nurtured Olympic and world medallists, you would imagine some pristine gym, or at the worst, a gym that is slightly worn down but has everything the current and future athletes could ever need. This is far from the case in Captain Ramadan’s training site at the corner of a busy street. The ground is rocky and uneven, and walls would be a luxury; chain-linked fencing and rails surround this training camp. Immediately we are thrown off by the condition of the site that it takes a few moments to realise that this isn’t just outside of the site; this IS the site.
Throwing every penny he has into the facilities, we watch the mercurial Captain Ramadan train his athletes as well as he can, all the while trying to improve their surroundings. As the girls and young boys train into the night, his worn-out body is shuffling around, trying to build up the walls to make something of the place to make it more secure for his athletes. He is on the phone trying to drum up funds for his young wards.
As we focus on him, we see the full range of techniques he utilises to keep his athletes on their toes. If they fail with their lifts, he is on them in a second. Yet you can see he is very much from the school of tough love as he is so desperate for these kids to succeed that even when he has arguments with them, he lets them cool down and then that arm is around them. By giving these young athletes this type of treatment, he thinks he is moulding them to be stronger, so when they succeed, this hobbling man becomes alive, bouncing and waving about as he celebrates his athlete. He takes great pride in their success, and while his training may appear as if it is from days gone by, the results show it works.
These relentlessly tough techniques also have everyone love him, and you can’t help but feel that magnetic energy that he brings to that World. You can’t keep your eyes off him as he marches around or holds council from his chair. Everyone gravitates towards him, even if they are angry with him; they have their head on his shoulder in the end. He is a father figure away from their home, which Zayed wisely never lets us see. We never see the private lives of everyone outside of when they are training, recruiting or competing. This allows us to focus on this little microcosm in Alexandria wholly, and while there are some negatives in their World, we almost forget any other issues going on by staying with them.
Zebiba’s four-year journey in Lift Like A Girl is as compelling as they come. We see her as this child protégé flaunted as much by Ramadan and his team to whoever will listen. (While there are other wonderful athletes, the documentary rightfully focuses on here.) What strikes us is that we only hear about her private life issues in conversations between others; we learn that her father is not well, and during this time in her young life, she is blatantly distracted. She struggles at times, and with each of the lifts, you are crossing everything for her to make it, so when she fails an attempt, your heart drops for her as you just know the verbal tirade that is going to come her way.
The weight of what is expected of her is always on her mind as she can never escape the pressure as everyone calls her champ. Or even as she is about to carry out a lift, they remind her of what she needs to be. Under such intense pressures, anyone would falter, yet as her team rallied around her when she struggles most, we understand that this is just how they know and want to help her.
Her evolution as the timid 14-year old that we first meet into the sociable 18-year-old who goes out and jokes with others is warming. We rally behind her and want her to be happy, even when we know next to nothing about her. Zayed’s ability to remain invisible allows for anything we see on the screen to hit more. There are so many little moments in Zebiba’s journey that we catch that it becomes so empowering to see the strength one person has, to keep going. To see where her potential could go and to not be overwrought by it all.
With an abundance of themes spread throughout Lift Like A Girl, the fact that it, like Zebiba, never bows under it all is fantastic. Zayed’s subjects bring up the gender issues prevalent in Egypt and around the World; we see how people from lower-income families in a rough part of Alexandria can go on and be something beyond their wildest dreams. The moments that could just resonate with where the film is based connect worldwide. We all know of a place or a person doing something to promote equality and empowerment for women and those struggling socioeconomically with next to no support from anyone to achieve it and their slow progress to building something. We see the slow progress of the training site; the wall gets built, the grass begins to grow with plants and flowers. Life continues and evolves, much like humanity.
Zayed’s camera is intimate yet distant as she moves in close as everyone is training as fights, tears and hugs are shared. In those moments when the camera takes that step back, it feels as if we see everything clearer, and when that camera is on a wide shot for Zebiba and her fellow athlete’s competition lifts, it almost feels like a movie. Zayed and her small team do wonder with their camerawork; by allowing the film to breathe the way they do, they make Lift Like A Girl be this scrappy piece (like where it is shot) that dreams big. From competitions under the stands of a stadium to the African Championships. Lift Like A Girl’s story has you relentlessly cheering on the small team that could.
Captain Ramadan himself continually throws away the concept that girls are weak in a rather pointed conversation with a local Sheikh. He describes why he should bring his daughter down to the training site and make his daughter strong, that girls should be the focus of the future as it has been for too long centred on boys. He wants them to be independent, to be confident and be able to look after themselves. This idea is key to the success of not only the documentary but the Captains training site. Continually, he has Zebiba show boys how to do the lifts; he has as the example, which has to be empowering for those in that site.
Captain Ramadan is right; prioritising girls is outdated. Thank goodness for people like him who dedicate their lives to enhancing the confidence of young women as he has built a group that will go on and conquer anything that comes their way. With Zebiba, we have an athlete who somehow had to match and exceed the early promise of what was expected of her, yet there she is, standing tall and strong, making sure that the white flag is raised. Lift Like A Girl is a truly rewarding documentary from Zayed is the perfect portrait of the relationship between a coach and their athlete.
To catch more of our reviews throughout Sheff Doc Fest 2021, Have a look below:
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
I am but a small website in this big wide world. As much as I would love to make this website a big and wonderful entity. That would bring in more costs. So, for now all I hope is to make Upcoming On Screen self sufficient. Well enough to where any website fees are less of a worry for me in the future. You can support the website below…
You can support us in a variety of ways (other than that wonderful word of mouth) and those lovely follows. If you are so inclined to help out then you can support us via Patreon, find our link here! We don’t want to ask much from you, so for now we have limited our tiers to £1.50 and £3.50. These will of course grow the more we plan to do here at Upcoming On Screen.
Thanks for reading, every view helps us out more than you would think (we have fragile egos). Until next time.