An Encounter with Mayye Zayed: “Lift Like a Girl”
08 Mar 2022

1- Your debut feature documentary film “Lift Like a Girl” is about the dreams we pursue at whatever cost, regardless of the milieu in which we were born. How did this central theme push you into considering screening the film outside standard spheres (festivals, movie theaters, etc…)? Was the idea conceived from the moment you were working on the film or is it something that came out after the release?

  • MZ: Actually, the idea of reaching out to different types of audiences that do not usually attend festivals, or cannot afford buying a movie ticket in theaters, is something that I have been thinking of since I was still working on the film.

    I have been working on the impact campaign since 2019, or in other words one year before completing the film. I knew, as soon as we had a solid first cut, that this story could be inspirational to different types of audiences all over the world, especially children and young audiences. I really wanted to reach out to this type of audience. We, independent filmmakers, always complain that we cannot find the audience that can watch our films; so I made the decision to try to look for the audience myself, and go to them to screen the film.

    Back then I did not know that the film would be successfully distributed, and that it would be released on Netflix. I therefore considered this kind of alternative distribution all the time; and of course, what really helped is the success the film had at festivals, and with the release on Netflix. All the NGOs that I have reached out to now know of the film, so they are even more excited to screen it in these different venues.

2- You have organized in end-2021 a screening of “Lift Like a Girl” in a home for the elderly in Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. More screenings in peripheral Lebanese areas (Mina Tripoli and the Bekaa) were also planned. Could you tell us more about this process of organizing screenings in local NGO and small humanitarian/development centers?

  • MZ: As mentioned earlier, I started working on the impact campaign because I felt that the film could create social change, and could have a real impact on the ground. The story breaks stereotypes about women, not only in Egypt or the Arab world, but everywhere. I felt that if young and old persons watched the film, they could relate to the human story side of it, and the film could change something in their perspective and on their perception about gender, women, unconventional sports like weightlifting, etc.

    So yes, I feel the film can create a real impact on the ground, and I have been receiving a lot of positive feedback from audiences all over the world, who could feel the story, feel the characters, and relate to them. At the same time, the film has changed something in how they perceive one another. I have been working on reaching out to audiences outside of big cities, so I started with Egypt. We held a tour of screenings in different cities and villages all over Egypt.

    While I was working on that plan, I received an email from the “Almost There” film festival (taking place in various locations all over Lebanon), saying that they would like to screen the film in their 5th edition. When I looked at the festival, I realized that we share the same beliefs; we want to do the same thing: we really want to take films to the kind of audience that is outside of big cities, that do not really have the chance to attend film screenings or talks, or meet with filmmakers. For this reason, I was so enthusiastic to have “Lift Like a Girl” screen at the festival, and even more so to attend the screenings that were programmed outside of Beirut. I was so happy to attend the screenings in Shatila camp, in one of the homes for the elderly; I think that was my favorite screening for the film so far. I was so touched by the feedback received, by how the women who watched the film were really reflecting on their own stories, on how they have carried cement and bricks, and built buildings at the camp, many years ago. So I think these kinds of conversations that the film can create are the important ones; that women and girls all over the Arab world can feel that they are not alone in what they do or in their journey. Moreover, for some Arab men who still believe that women cannot play sports, the world of Captain Ramadan and Zebiba will hopefully change their perception.

    We are also releasing soon, "Lift Like a Girl - The Game", which is a board game designed by the Beirut-based game designer Everythink. We completed the design and are currently testing the game.

    With regards to the screenings, we received so far more than 30 requests from different NGOs all over Egypt, and especially in Saeed or the South. We actually had our first screening tour last month in Upper Egypt in Southern cities and villages. We organized 11 screenings with adults and kids in the city of Asyut and villages nearby, as well as Mallawi where we screened the kids version (45 minutes long) - which is a shorter version of the film - organized workshops and presented a special pack for the children. The main themes of the film were discussed with the boys and girls, and we tackled topics like how to pursue one’s dream, what is a dream, what does it mean to be a boy or a girl, and how does your gender affect your decisions in a positive or a negative way? After coming back, we re-wrote some parts of the tool kit and realized the kids' version needed to be even shorter, so we edited a new one that is 32 minutes long.

3- Can you tell us more about this special pack or educational tool kit? Will this tool kit be used in the workshops moving forward? And will you be accompanied during the workshops with experts such as child psychologists?

  • MZ: Yes - Nourhan Ibrahim; the tool kit designer is an educational psychology consultant, concept-based curriculum developer and teenagers' existential life coach. At the moment, we are testing the tool kit, as well as various activities, as we are targeting children from different backgrounds and age groups. We know that if we are going to hold a workshop for children in a public elementary school for example, it would be very different than if we were going to screen the film for high school students in a private sports club. We are therefore trying to design the tool kit in the style of an open curriculum, so that the facilitator working with the children can choose the activities that he/she feels will work best. For example, we organized one screening here in Alexandria, with the NGO Caritas and UNHCR, in a school for Syrian and Sudanese refugees. The workshop that we had afterwards focused on the idea of pursuing one’s dreams, because we felt that in such contexts, it is so important to inspire these children to pursue their own dreams.

    The tool kit is designed in a way that each facilitator can pick and build his/her own workshop. We are working with a couple of facilitators, who are part of our team, with a plan to test the tool kit. We will address different groups, receive feedback, and then update the tool kit accordingly so that it is totally ready for the upcoming workshops.

4- You mentioned earlier how you go out and meet your audiences. Do you feel that this initiative is as fruitful or beneficial to your audiences as it is to you? Like a win-win situation, where you learn from your audiences as much as they learn from you?

  • MZ: Yes, of course. For the last two years, or as long as the film was screened in festivals, I was never able to actually travel and meet the audiences myself. It was therefore really great to finally meet the audience – the only audience I met was during the Cairo Film Festival, and that was great. The trip to Lebanon was very exciting because it was the first time that Sarah Abdallah, the editor, and myself actually attended a real-life Q&A, got to listen to the audience, and have a real conversation with them. With regards to the Shatila camp, I had never been there before, and of course it was a very eye-opening experience for me. As a documentary filmmaker, these life experiences are what inspire you to tell other stories in the future. So of course it is a win-win situation, and I feel very lucky to be able to do that, to go there and meet these amazing men and women, and even children. We had other screenings for children, for example in Tripoli we had a screening in Ruwwad al Tanmeya, in a neighborhood called Bab Al Tebbanah, and I was so amazed by how the youths there could really see the different layers of the story, and how they could ask all these very smart questions. We had a very deep conversation about different themes of the film, and how I and the rest of the crew felt while we were filming each scene… It was a very fruitful conversation.

    In each Q&A that I attend, I learn something. In the screening that I organized with Caritas in Alexandria, before I traveled to Lebanon, for a group of children aged 9 to 15, one of them spoke about the bullying that Zebiba faced while competing. It was something that I never really noticed before; I have seen this film a million times, and I have shot it over four years; I watched the footage many times, I watched the final film many, many times… I was so amazed by how this girl could see the bullying that Zebiba was experiencing, and I felt that she could feel it because somehow she could relate to it, and she was living it in her daily life; while I am not experiencing it anymore because I had grown up. As we all know, bullying is a big problem for teenagers and young children, and sometimes even for adults. So that was something that I did not really see before, and she made me see it, in my own film. We therefore decided to add this topic to the tool kit: we will design an activity that tackles the bullying that Zebiba was experiencing in some way in the film.

5- What are your future plans for “Lift Like a Girl” and its community outreach? Also, could you share ideas that sparked from the community activities, for a potential future documentary film project?

  • MZ: Alongside the screenings that we are planning to have, I am also trying to organize panels. We have managed to organize a couple of these, with the release at Zawya, last summer. When the film was released in Cairo, we organized two panels. The first one was with a group of Egyptian female athletes, who are doing outstanding work in their field. They came from different sports, and they were all A-list athletes. We had Abir Abdelrahman, the two-time Olympic medalist weightlifter, who was actually trained with Captain Ramadan; she was not a character in the film, but we hear her name in the story. She attended this panel, along with other female athletes: Shaimaa Samy - A Paralympic champion in 3 different sports - she was also a Bronze world champion medalist in 2013; Nahla Sameh, a volleyball player in the Egyptian national team and the captain of the Egyptian national women team and Al-Ahly sports club; and Lama El-Shawarby, a handball goalkeeper formerly for Al Ahly sports club and currently for El-Gezira sports club.

    We had this panel right after screening the film, and all these female athletes started to reflect about their own journeys, as female athletes in Egypt, and how each one of them could relate to what Zebiba was going through. Some of them were members of Al Ahly Sports Club; another one was an Olympic champion, so they had to reflect upon different themes of the film, and the engagement that they had with the audience was great. It is so important for me that the audience knows that Zebiba’s story is similar to many other female athletes’ all over Egypt and the Arab region.

    We were also planning to have a panel about nutrition, however the details are not finalized yet. Also, when the film was released in Canada, we had a panel to which we invited a Canadian Olympic medalist swimmer: Hilary Cadlwell. She talked about her own journey as an athlete in Canada, which was not that different from Zebiba’s journey.

    I think these panels are very important events that we hope to keep on planning. We also organized, with City Marathon, a marathon with the release of the film in cinemas in Alexandria, in addition to a screening with the rowing team in Cairo, and we are planning to hold other sports events.

    So I really hope to have more events with the audience that play different types of sports, and hopefully get to screen the film in sports clubs, or to teams of various sports, because I think it can be inspiring to them as well, and I could see how athletes could relate to the story so strongly.

    This is another side of the impact campaign that we have already started working on. The impact campaign is supported by Beirut DC Impact Fund and International Media Support (IMS). Furthermore, the editing of the kids' version was completed with the support of the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Initiative (DEDI).

    With regards to a potential future documentary film, I have an idea that I am cooking at the moment, however it is not really ready yet. I hope I can start working on it very soon.

    I really hope that at some point, the tool kit and the kids version of the film can be used without me, and that the film can keep going with a life of its own.

Note to NGOs interested in screening the film: NGOs can fill out a form on the film’s website to send a request to host a screening of the film.