Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF 2020: Lift Like a Girl Review

Moving story of female weight lifter and her charismatic coach

4 mins read

Lift Like a Girl
(Egypt, 95 min)
Mayye Zayed, dir.
Programme: TIFF Docs

Great documentaries are often created through amazing real life characters. Lift Like a Girl has one for the ages, Captain Ramadan, a crude, funny, gravel voiced man, who mixes his foul language with regular calls to the Prophet while inspiring girls to become weightlifters. The Captain, as everyone calls him, could have been a character actor like Lee Marvin or Sam Elliott if he hadn’t been an Olympic athlete before becoming a coach. His reputation as a brilliant trainer of young women couldn’t be more impeccable: his daughter Nahla is an Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting and her sister Nagham was a junior Bronze winner. Despite his angry demeanour around the girls he’s training, the Captain is a fierce advocate for women to be as strong and spirited as men.

His current disciple Zebiba, which means raisin in Arabic, has genuine promise as an athlete and can lift great weights for her age. She’s also moody and inconsistent in her performances. The Captain spends considerable time with Zebiba, cajoling her to do her best all the time. In a lovely scene, Zebiba rests her head on his shoulder, asking him why he yells so much. His answer is elusive and consistent with his character: because they’re all (add your favourite crude terms) and deserve it.

Of course, it’s obvious to the girls and especially Zebiba that he loves them all but doesn’t want to appear to be soft in front of them. The only times he does express joy and satisfaction are when they win medals at competitions. His approval is clear as we view several gritty displays of the courage of Zebiba and her friends. The scenes of the girls giving their all feel more like a sports doc than anything else in the film.

The Captain’s training ground is literally an empty lot with a locked wire fence on a street corner in Alexandria, Egypt. Passersby stop and watch sometimes as the girls do their weight training exercises. Gradually, the Captain and other men build small brick enclosures in the lot, making it look slightly more permanent and professional. It’s appropriate that it’s in that location where we last see the Captain, looking around his training ground before turning out the lights for the final time.

With the Captain gone, the final quarter of this emotional film is taken up with the grief everyone feels at the loss of their charismatic leader. Zebiba is the most affected and it’s up to her to finally start lifting weights at a top level again. We understand that a sporting maxim is true: champions have to believe in themselves to be true winners. That’s the Captain’s legacy to Zebiba and the other girls.

Lift Like a Girl is a well-constructed film made out of intimate verité scenes. Filmmaker Mayye Zayed has made a fine documentary about female empowerment, the competitive spirit and the love between a coach and an athlete. As a wonderful plus, the viewer gets to see Egypt from the inside, not just as a political field but one in which real people’s lives get played out.

Lift Like a Girl screened at TIFF 2020.

Update (2021-07-05): Lift Like a Girl screens as part of the Impact Series beginning July 9.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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