Meaning “raisin” in Arabic, Zebiba is also a term for the bump devout Muslims develop on their foreheads from frequent contact with their prayer mat. As a nickname for a 14-year-old girl, it works on both levels. When Zebiba begins her weight-lifting training at the beginning of “Lift Like a Girl,” she is small and shriveled compared to the older champions she aspires to emulate. But over the course of the film — shot over four years in Alexandria, Egypt — Zebiba grows to be a fierce competitor, the clanking of medals around her neck becoming her own Zebiba, marking years of dedication to her training.
The feature filmmaking debut of Alexandria native Mayye Zayed, “Lift Like a Girl” is an intimate observational portrait of a young girl’s empowerment through the traditionally male sport of weightlifting. The film is bolstered by an improbable hero, the passionate and cantankerous Captain Ramadan, who rules his outdoor training facility with an iron fist and a can-do attitude. The Captain, as his young charges call him, hobbles around his patch of dusty earth watering trees held flimsily by rock piles, and shouting haphazard commands to his eager trainees. Slightly bowlegged from years of training, he regales them with stories of his glory days as an athlete, claiming he once ate “36 slabs of meat” before a competition. He addresses them both as girls and boys, alternating between telling them to “man up,” and impressing upon neighborhood passersby that girls are more important than boys.
Located in an industrial area in the city on a heavily trafficked street, the Captain’s training center may not look like much to an outsider. But to the girls who train with him, it is their entire world. Zayed keeps the focus squarely on the training center, zeroing in on this dusty oasis where a struggling community comes together to strengthen and support its daughters. We never see Zebiba at home, and her mother pops up only here and there to pick her up and consult the Captain on her diet. The film becomes a bit too narrowly focused on her relationship with the Captain, and a few outside scenes would have provided a grounding context. Other characters emerge from the sidelines here and there, such as a fellow competitor and another coach, but it’s difficult to latch onto any relationship beyond the central mentorship.
Like an Egyptian Richard Williams, Captain Ramadan built his coaching reputation training his daughter. Nahla Ramadan, a World Weightlifting Champion and Olympian who broke barriers for women in the sport across the Arab world, appears at the end of the film as Zebiba’s eventual coach. In her director’s notes, Zayed recalls seeing her success as a teenager and feeling “motivated in many ways I cannot describe.” Much like the Williams sisters did for women’s tennis, Ramadan’s success seems to have propelled a national interest in women’s weightlifting, opening doors for girls with even the most limited of resources to try their hand at the sport.
Like any good coach, the Captain can be a stern taskmaster at times, yelling forcefully at Zebiba after multiple failed lift attempts, even dramatically disowning her as his protégé as she chokes back tears. When she wins, he is all exuberant singing and cheering, eliciting chuckles from the crowd as he dances giddily up and down the arena chanting her name. “A girl has to be strong as a bull,” the Captain tells one neighborhood man. “Prioritizing boys is outdated. Girls are more important.” Perhaps even more surprising is that his philosophy appears to travel both ways; one short scene shows him praising men’s dancing. “You think only women can dance? So can men!”
The film is broken up as Zebiba grows, following her training from the ages of 14 to 18. It’s not always easy to follow her progress, especially without a background in weightlifting. The stakes of each lift are a bit opaque; one must watch the onlookers’ faces, Zebiba’s tears, and the Captain’s reactions to discern how important each competition is. More than a sports documentary, “Lift Like a Girl” emerges as a portrait of a community, and the immense impact one passionate teacher and mentor can have on an entire generation.
The Captain’s influence is perhaps most stark when a little girl in pigtails begins her training, her small figure struggling to lift a light bar over her head. The Captain consults her mother, who wears a full Niqab, as he explains that some of his girls are more religious than others, but they’re all respectful and stay out of trouble. Months later, after Zebiba has brought home many medals, this same little girl is still training hard. Zebiba has proven, and Nahla before her, with dedication and perseverance, anyone can learn to “Lift Like a Girl.”
“Lift Like a Girl” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.