Lift Like a Girl Review: How Hard Can You Push Someone to Become a Champion?

Courtesy of TIFF

Girl Power [lifting]

Context is king. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand the depths of some relationships. What may appear to be abusive to a third party, may only be the manifestation of how they express love and frustration with one another. If you’ve ever participated in a competitive sport, the relationship between Zebiba and The Captain may look familiar. That said, it isn’t any less difficult to watch. Knowing the context of this relationship and even being familiar with it, does that make it right or ok?

In her debut feature documentary, Lift Like a Girl, Director Mayye Zayed doesn’t appear particularly interested in answering questions surrounding abuse and bullying, despite their prominence in the film. Through her lens, she does something just as interesting. She portrays contrasting relationships that seem to pose the query to the audience: What do you think? To her credit, I’ve been thinking about it since I saw the film.

As I often tend to do, I’m getting ahead of myself. Lift Like a Girl follows Zebiba, a 14-year-old girl from Alexandria, Egypt, who aspired to be a champion weightlifter and the hard-nosed coach, Captain Ramadan, attempting to train her to compete at that level. Shot over the course of 4 years, between 2014 and 2018, the observational documentary embeds you in the world of athletics and weightlifting.

There’s a lot to unpack in this film. Captain Ramadan trained his own daughter, Nahla, to be a champion weightlifter and one of Egypt’s most famous athletes. In doing so, they inspired a generation of young women to pursue the same goal. This is done against the backdrop of poverty and sexism that permeates the documentary.

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Captain Ramadan trains Zebiba and other aspiring athletes in a dirt gym on the corner of a busy street in Alexandria, with no walls and little equipment to speak of. He goes through the city or holds court in his gym, preaching his philosophy of empowerment through sports. He firmly believes in uplifting young women and that doing so solely with boys is an old way of thinking, chastising those that walk by the gym, heckling the athletes.

Sports movies are often derived from true stories, but here, Zayed brings you right to the source, and the raw emotion you feel from the two main subjects rivals much of what I’ve seen in similar films, fictitious or not. To say it’s an intimate journey would be to understate the impact of the film. The victories and defeats that occur on screen are palpable.

So, is Lift Like a Girl worth your time? Unquestionably. You don’t have to be a fan of weightlifting or even sports, for that matter, to find enjoyment in this film. The silent and steady cinematography of this film consistently comes back to one thing, relationships. By 30 minutes into the film, I was firmly invested in the journey they were undertaking.

As far as the question that the film doesn’t answer? For me, I find that relationships can be more than one thing. It’s not cut and dry and the disparity in age and experience makes it difficult to watch. The film also shows what happens when a similar relationship exists without love and mutual respect. There, it’s easier to find the fault. However, between Zebiba and Captain Ramadan, as coarse as the relationship can be between protégé and coach in this film, it always seems to be rooted in love. That doesn’t make it ok, but it certainly makes a difference.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is currently taking place and will go through Saturday, September 19.

Article was updated on 15 September to distinguish Olympic powerlifting from weightlifting.

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