'Lift Like a Girl': How Mayye Zayed hopes to inspire young Egyptian women with new documentary

The filmmaker's latest work follows a Egyptian teen as she chases her dream of becoming a weightlifting champion

'Lift Like a Girl', by Egyptian director Mayye Zayed, charts the journey of the country's female weightlifting champions. 
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Being a filmmaker was once a far-away dream for Mayye Zayed, but now she is a celebrated director and her documentary Lift Like a Girl is one of 50 films to have been selected for this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Egyptian director Zayed, 35, says making films was something she always wanted to do but she only started exploring the idea seriously when she finished her engineering degree.

Zayed made the transition out of curiosity and because of a fear that she would regret not doing so later in life.

If the story of female weightlifting champions touched me as a teenager, I was sure a film would inspire young girls to fight stereotypes and follow their dreams, no matter what.
Meyye Zayed

After spending two years learning the basics of filmmaking at workshops in Egypt, Zayed received a 2011 Fulbright scholarship to go to Wellesley College in the US state of Massachusetts, where she studied cinema and media studies.

Upon her return to Egypt, Zayed worked on The Mice Room, which was screened at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013. Later, she made a short film called A Stroll Down Sunflower Lane, which was shown at the Berlinale in 2016.

But while doing all this, she also worked on her feature documentary Lift Like a Girl, which is hitting the big screen after years of work.

It tells the story of Zebiba, 14, as she trains to become a weightlifting champion, following her dreams, no matter the cost. Zayed feels she did something similar herself by giving up a career in engineering to pursue films.

“I’m very happy to be here now,” she says. “Back then, it was not an easy decision because I knew I had to give up five years of school, of working so hard to be an engineer, but I’m happy I did that.”

Lift Like a Girl was six years in the making, but the subject fascinated Zayed much longer than that.

In 2003, when she was a teenager, Nahla Ramadan became the first Egyptian athlete to win the world junior weightlifting championship.

“Back then, I was so inspired by the story of the girl training in the streets of Alexandria becoming a world champion, and she was almost my age,” Zayed says. “In a way, she was my hero.”

When Zayed found out that Ramadan's father, who is also her coach, still trains girls in the same place he used to train his daughter, she realised this was a story she wanted to tell.

“If Nahla’s story touched me as a teenager, then I was sure if I made a film about this world it would inspire young girls to fight stereotypes and follow their dreams, no matter what,” Zayed says.

So, over the course of four years, she captured the journey of girls who train in weightlifting, and even featured Ramadan, her real-life hero, in the film.

Working as a two-person crew made up of herself and her director of photography, Zayed became part of the community of weightlifters, so much so that after two years of filming, the young athletes stopped asking when her documentary was coming out.

Egyptian director Mayye Zayed's film 'Lift Like a Girl' has been selected for the Toronto International Film Festival. Mayye Zayed
Egyptian director Mayye Zayed's film 'Lift Like a Girl' has been selected for the Toronto International Film Festival. Mayye Zayed

She says their determination kept her filming for four years: "I would go every day to film and I would see them literally sniffing dust and training no matter what, and I felt that if they can do it, then I can do it too."

The film’s ultimate message is to pursue your dreams no matter how unconventional they are, Zayed says, adding that her film “is not about winning or losing, but more about the journey”.

"When you think about world champions, you think it must have been easy for them to reach that place, but in the film you get to see all these girls really struggling and not struggling in a stereotypical way ... they are struggling because they have limited resources, but have a big dream they want to achieve, and they do it."

After the Toronto appearance in September, Zayed hopes her hard-fought documentary will go to film festivals around the world. Ultimately, however, she is most focused on making sure the film is seen by its target audience: young girls and teenagers.

“For the last year, I have been working on an impact campaign to take the film to schools and universities in Egypt and the Arab world, where we can reach out to these young girls, screen the film for them and open a discussion with them about their dreams and the stereotypes they are facing.”

She hopes the film will inspire these young women to pursue their ambitions in the way she pursued her passion for film-making. Her aim is for them to feel confident to follow their dreams earlier in life than she did.

Zayed also wants to shed light on the story of the training centre, and how, with very limited resources, it is teaching young girls to lift their ambitions.

The Toronto International Film Festival will take place from Thursday, September 10 to Saturday, September 19