“Prioritizing boys is outdated.” A surly old man declares with his trademark scratchy voice, “Girls are more important.” The men of the street nod at the man, Captain Ramadan. He is a foul-mouthed, almost cartoon-like man yet it’s he who reigns supreme as the coach for a group of girls training to be weightlifting champions in Alexandria, Egypt. He holds court for the aspiring group young female weightlifters of Alexandria in Lift like a Girl.
The documentary consists of various vignettes against the sandy streets of Egypt for over four years. The Captain, as he is nicknamed, trains a group of unassuming women in an outdoor gym. Unlike most sports documentaries, Lift Like a Girl is more concerned about the relationships within the sport, rather than the grandiosity of sports itself. There are magnificent feats, sure, but at the heart of Mayye Zayed’s doc is the fraught but fearless relationship between coaches and their trainees.
Lift like a Girl is an exemplary title for the concept of “show, not tell”, allowing the small moments stitched together by Zayed speak for themselves. Moments seamlessly stretch by over the four years, but every snippet feels integral to Captain and Zebiba’s story. The cinematography always prioritizes showing how Captain Ramadan and the girls are intrinsically linked; one humorous shot shows central subject Zebiba succeeding at a competition and zooms immediately to an elated Captain literally singing his praises across the venue. Tight shots on the girls and their triumphs and tears make it palpable to the audience. Images of Alexandria’s streets and the jeering men and children eliminate the glamour of sports, providing a glimpse into the patriarchal elements still at play within the sport.
Lift Like a Girl is as much as a portrait of this complicated and unshakeable relationship as it is a snapshot of tough love. Captain Ramadan is no warm figure. He may be a factory for winners (“You make world champions while sitting on a mat!” a passerby once says), but he does it through his particular brand of tough love. Zebiba, a young girl who’s 14 at the start of the film, bears the brunt of it. Bespectacled with pink rimmed glasses, Zebiba’s unwavering dedication to the craft is at constant war with the Captain’s unrelenting tough love. It edges on borderline bullying at some point; his callous callouts creep into the words of fellow weightlifters and even Zebiba’s family. Yet like any relationship like theirs, it comes from a place of love and faith.
The documentary at its heart is a revelation on authority figures, and how they are interwoven in the fabric of a community. Captain Ramadan and Zebiba cannot survive without one or the other. Since we rarely see any of the saccharine sisterhood that’s emblematic of these kinds of films (there is a tender moment of a girl holding Zebiba’s hands into the competition, but again, it’s an anomaly), the real tendon in this muscle is Captain Ramadan himself. At the end of the day, Lift Like a Girl is a story about what happens when that connective tissue is fragile and fraught, and what you do to keep it together.