Girls dreaming of becoming weightlifting champions. In the DEDI-supported documentary, Lift Like A Girl, director Mayye Zayed observes a new generation of Alexandrian female weightlifters. The movie aims to inspire young girls around the world to pursue their dreams, and not to be afraid of going against the social norms. This, by telling the story of 14-year-old Zebiba’s struggle to become a weightlifting champion.
Egypt’s second biggest city, Alexandria, has been a hotspot for female weightlifters for years. In fact, the documentary sets in the very same noisy, dusty outdoor training yard, that fostered two of Egypt’s greatest athletes of all time: Nahla Ramadan and Abeer Abdel Rahman. The two female weightlifters are famous for being some of the very few Egyptians winning medals at the Olympics and World Championships.
The narrative of the documentary resembles traditional sports movies. At the beginning, Zebiba prepares for her first local championship with the help of her coach, backbone and father-like-figure Captain Ramadan. Then she embarks on a professional journey and ends up by winning three gold medals in the African Junior Championships. Yet, it is clear, that this is not just another story of an underdog’s road to success despite all odds. On the contrary, it’s a story about loss and the acceptance of loss. Sometimes, even a light barbell becomes too heavy to lift, and Zebiba grows to learn that losing is a part of life as much as winning.
Captain Ramadan is a key figure in Zebiba’s life and as such also in the documentary. The 65-years-old coach is a former weightlifter himself. He is also the father and coach of the first Egyptian World Champion weightlifter Nahla Ramadan who was mentioned above. Captain Ramadan believes in the girls’ strength and potential, even when they don’t seem to believe in it themselves. He loves to lecture their parents about this when they pick-up and drop-off their children at the training yard. In one scene he tells a father that “prioritizing our boys is outdated. Girls are more important”. In another, he encourages a mother to let her daughter train because she “needs to be strong like a bull”.
Mayye Zayed has created a movie that promotes women empowerment and questions gender stereotypes. Even in Europe, a female weightlifting champion would probably face a good number of prejudices of not being feminine enough. Zebiba dares to be different and not conformist, and thus breaks the stereotype that women aren’t as strong as men.
Yet, it’s interesting to notice, that even in the training yard the girls are not necessarily considered girls. Captain Ramadan consistently use the male pronoun when he talks to them, and he asks them to “man up” and to “be boys”. By observing this, the documentary demonstrates that breaking and maintaining stereotypes could happen simultaneously, raising the difficult question of why a girl could be seen as a boy when she lifts? And inviting to further reflections on how we perceive gender, femininity and masculinity.
Lift Like A Girl is directed by Mayye Zayed and it’s her first feature documentary. Sound design and mixing was done by Brian Dyrby and Samir Nabil, and supported by DEDI in cooperation with IMS (International Media Support). The Egyptian-German-Danish production premiered at the Toronto Film Festival September 2020.
Martha Tode works at DEDI