Mayye Zayed’s debut Lift Like a Girl has been selected for the Toronto International Film Festival (to open in September). This is the second achievement by Egyptian female filmmakers in 2020, after Ayten Amin’s Souad premiering at Cannes. Incidentally, both women are from Alexandria.
An editor and cinematographer as well as a director, Zayed has made an observational documentary about the female weightlifting community training on the streets of Alexandria. It follows the 14-year-old Zebiba as she pursues her dream of becoming a professional weightlifter. For over 20 years her coach Captain Ramadan, who believes in and pushes her, has been training woman weightlifters. These include his own daughter Nahla Ramadan, former world champion, two-time Olympian and weightlifting pioneer in Egypt, as well as Abeer Abdel Rahman, the first Arab female two-time Olympic medalist. For four years, Zebiba goes through victories and defeats that shape her while she finds her way from dust to gold.
Although work on Lift Like a Girl started in 2014, Zayed’s connection with the world of her film started in 2003: “I was 18 years old when Nahla Ramadan, the pioneer of weightlifting in Egypt, Africa and the Arab world, became the game’s top- ranking athlete after collecting three gold medals and breaking two world records in the process. It was such a big thing for me. I was completely astonished with that girl who had no place to train but the street, and no coach but her father.”
At that time Zayed was a secondary school student hoping to become an engineer, but Nahla Ramadan’s story remained an inspiration well into her filmmaking career. It was in 2009, following her graduation from Alexandria University, that she joined the Jesuits Alexandria Film School where she was tutored by, among others, celebrated independent filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout before joining the crew of his film Hawi (2010). She later took part in= The Mice Room (2013), a film composed of contributions by six Alexandrian directors, most of whom were part of the production house Rufy’s Films, established in 2009-2010. By then she had studied at Wellesley College and MIT on a Fulbright scholarship. Like other independent filmmakers in her circle, she wrote, edited (notably Mohamed Zydan’s 2017 I Have a Picture) and produced as well as directing. In 2016 her short film A Stroll Down Sunflower Lane premiered at the Berlinale.
“It was in 2014 that a friend and a co-worker saw them during their training and told me of what he saw,” Zayed says of her encounter with Captain Ramadan and his team. “It was such a great moment and it reminded me of the idol of the 18-year-old girl I had been.” With a tiny crew (herself, Amrosh Badr and Rufy’s Films cofounder cinematographer Mohamed El Hadidy), Zayed embarked on her journey with the weightlifters. “We would go and shoot once or twice a month. It was not easy at the beginning since the captain thought we might be journalists. But in the end he was convinced that we had good intentions. It took two years to decide which character we would follow. Zebiba was an amazing girl who never missed a training session and developed hugely between 2014 and 2018. She took part in all the championships in Alexandria until she became African champion twice in 2017 and 2018.”
The girls, she explains, built their glories out of nothing. “I wouldn’t have imagined that making such a film would take up to six years, but I was eager to see the world of those champions. And I wasn’t following just one girl’s success story but also that of the man who believed in her and her peers – a strong man fond devoted to strong women. He had only a dump-like garden on the street in which to train them. It is the story of everything I admire, everything that inspires me.” There are many women’s stories in the Arab arts, but most are stories of victimhood or victimisation. Lift Like a Girl is a story of accomplishment and triumph.
The film is an observational documentary, meaning there are no interviews, questions, scripted or prearranged scenes. “We would shoot for hours. We had up to 90 hours over four years, then I would watch the material and see what was missing so we could try and capture it on our next visit. And that is how we built up the puzzle, piece by piece.” That is partly because she wanted the film, which is dominated by narrative, to look like a fiction piece.
“The border between fiction and documentary is narrowing, and I wanted my film to have that fictional structure.” That is why she decided to work with an editor who works mostly on fiction films, Sara Abdullah. “It is the first film of mine that I did not edit. But Sara did amazing work. She astonished me with her way of turning long hours of shooting into a single, amazingly expressive scene. Thanks to her, this film became what it is now. Our long discussions, my back-and-forth trips between Cairo and Alexandria payed off.”
The six-year period in which the film was made reflects the fact that it follows the development of a character over time, but funding issues too had a part to play in slowing things down. “I made it the hard way, like any filmmaker making their debut. I don’t believe filmmakers should make films out of their own pockets, and there is a hard lesson every independent filmmaker needs to learn which is how to navigate the funding map. It is very difficult but crucial. For three my funding requests were denied, my project rejected by every institution. Some foreign producers did not understand why we should make a film about happy and strong girls rather than harassment or abuse or oppression.”
In the end Lift Like a Girl was produced by Cléo Media, an Alexandria-based production house established by Zayed herself in 2020: “Cléo Media is an important step in my career for many reasons: it helps me to produce the films I want to make and know no one else is interested in, but also to support other female filmmakers and filmmakers making films about females. This is the focus of my production house.” Coproducers included JYOTI Film (partners and co-founders Anke Petersen and Anna Bolster) and Rufy’s Films. As well as Abdullah and El Hadidi, the crew included Samir Nabil and Brian Dyrby (sound), Marian Mentrup (music) and Chrystel Elias (colour). The Toronto world premiere was great news for Zayed who hopes to go to other festivals as well, though her ultimate wish is that Egyptians should see the film and find out about Zebiba and her peers – and be inspired. That is why an “impact campaign” to screen the film at youth centers, public clubs and open spaces all across the country is underway.
“The place where the girl champions receive their training is very important for Egyptian sport. People need to know – and help. This film is about gold buried in dust.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly