Mayye Zayed is an Egyptian filmmaker and the founder of Cléo Media for production and impact distribution in Alexandria. After studying Telecommunications & Electronics Engineering at the University of Alexandria, she studied Filmmaking at the Jesuits Film workshop. She then received the Fulbright scholarship and studied Cinema and Media Studies at Wellesley College as well as Innovations in Documentary at MIT in the USA in 2011 and 2012. She was the recipient of the Film Independent’s Global Media Makers Fellowship in 2017 and 2019. She’s also an alumna of the Berlinale Talents, the Mediterranean Film Institute, the Documentary Campus Masterschool, DOX BOX and the American Film Showcase Documentary Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Mayye is a film director, producer, director of photography and editor. In 2013, she co-directed, co-produced and co-shot the collaborative feature “The Mice Room” with five other filmmakers. The film screened at the 2013 Dubai Film Festival and the 2014 Sao Paulo Film Festival. In 2016, she made the award-winning short “A Stroll Down Sunflower Lane” shown at the 2016 Berlinale and AFI Fest and won the Best Experimental Film Award at the 2019 Sharjah Film Platform. From 2013 to 2019, Mayye worked at Rufy’s Films that she had also co-founded.
Tara Karajica talks to Mayye Zayed about feminism in film and her first documentary feature, “Lift Like a Girl,” an observational and empowering film about fourteen-year old Zebiba, standing at the precipice between childhood and weightlifting champion, guided only by her dedicated yet relentless coach, Captain Ramadan, and her own competitive edge from a scrappy, vacant-lot training site in Alexandria, Egypt to the Olympic Games – that premiered in the TIFF Docs and TIFF Next Waves sections of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
You studied engineering; how did you get into filmmaking?
Mayye Zayed: Back in 2008, I was just finishing my University degree in Engineering and at that moment, I felt that filmmaking was something that I’ve always wanted to do, but never really had the chance to explore. It was always in the back of my mind as a hobby, so I felt that since I’ve just finished school, I might take some time to explore this, just so that I don’t regret it later in life. That’s what basically drove me to look for workshops. I never thought that I had the chance to be accepted – filmmaking as an industry was so foreign to me. I never thought that I would make it, but I just tried for the sake of trying and I applied for the first workshop and got accepted, which was a big surprise to me and I was so happy! And then, one workshop led to another and here I am!
As a teenager, you were inspired by Egyptian weightlifter and weightlifting pioneer Nahla Ramadan. Has this inspired Lift Like a Girl?
M.Z.: Yes, that’s true. I’ve known about Nahla for long time. Back in 2003, when I was just eighteen years old, I remember hearing about her winning the World Championships in Canada; it was so big in Egypt, it was all over the news! Everybody talked about Nahla and the fact that she was training in the streets with her father. She was the first Egyptian athlete to have achieved this at such a young age. And, as a teenager, I was so inspired by this story because she was even younger than me; she was fifteen back then and I couldn’t imagine a girl training in the streets, weightlifting to become a World Champion. Nahla became a big sports icon in Egypt and at every Olympic Games, people would cheer for her, pray for her and hope she would win a medal, so she’s quite known to any person watching sports and I knew that, but I didn’t know that her father, Captain Ramadan, was still coaching girls in the same place. When I got the chance to meet him, I was so amazed by his persistence, determination and passion for coaching and how he’s coaching all these young girls with all the limited resources that he has or despite the limited resources that he has.
How did you decide to make this film?
M.Z.: I was so touched by how the training site where Captain Ramadan was coaching all these young girls is the most gender-balanced place in Egypt. You see strong women and strong girls who are fighting so hard for their dreams and Captain Ramadan fighting so hard for them, so I thought it was such an amazing world that I want to explore more. I think, since day one, since I met Captain Ramadan, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a feature about this place.
How accepted is the fact that it’s mostly girls training there and that Nahla was a girl winning all these medals?
M.Z.: It’s not accepted. Nahla and her sister Nagham, who was also a Bronze medalist in the Junior World Championship back in 2002 – the two sisters trained by Captain Ramadan – were actually the first women in Egypt and the Arab world to play this sport, so they basically opened the doors for other girls, especially Nahla with all her achievements. Of course, it’s not that common, but doing that for twenty years made it acceptable. When we were filming in the neighborhood, we could see they are really appreciated there but, of course, from time to time, you would find people just bugging them or bullying them, but they are stronger than that and they keep going no matter what.
Can you talk about the shooting process? How long did it take to make the film? Were you filming yourself?
M.Z.: Actually, the shooting process lasted four years – from 2014 to 2018. As we’re following Zebiba from the age of fourteen to the age of eighteen, it was quite a process. We weren’t filming everyday. We would go there every month for just a few days and then go back home and then come back the next month, or if there was something happening like a championship or something that was taking place at the training site that we would like to film, we would go back more often. The crew was so minimal. It was just a D.o.P and myself, and sometimes the second unit director because sometimes we would use two cameras, but that was very rare. In only the scenes of the championships, because the location is so big and things are happening so fast, the D.o.P would be on one camera and I would be on the other camera as a cameraperson. I was the one recording sound in the film, so we were really like a two or three-person crew throughout the four years. And, most of the time, we were just two – the D.o.P and I.
Were you completely welcomed and accepted?
M.Z.: Yes! At the beginning, they and Captain Ramadan thought we were journalists, so they thought we were just there to do a reportage or a short interview about them, so they would speak to the camera. But then, I remember I had this talk with Captain Ramadan and I explained to him what I was trying to do – that we’re making this film and I really wanted to be observational and didn’t want him to talk to the camera and he immediately understood that and respected that and never ever again addressed the camera when we were filming. And, after spending four years with them, I now feel that I am actually part of their team; I treat them as family. I consider Captain Ramadan like a father. We built this very strong connection.
Is Nahla still lifting and competing or is she only coaching?
M.Z.: Well, she’s training for herself. I don’t know if she’s competing, but she’s now coaching Zebiba, actually. But the whole national team is being suspended for two years from competing internationally because of some athletes’ violations and doping. Although Zebiba tested negative, the ban affects the whole national team of Egypt. So, now, they are stopping, but they are preparing for the World Championships in 2022.
Lift Like a Girl is a film about following your dreams no matter how unconventional they are and fighting stereotypes and if Nahla touched you as a teenager back then, how do you think this film will inspire young girls to actually fight stereotypes and follow their dreams today?
M.Z.: That’s exactly why I made this film. I feel that if Nahla’s story touched me when I just read about it, when I was a teenager, I hope that other teenagers now, when they watch the film and watch Zebiba and all the girls, can be touched by this story and inspired to follow their dreams. At the end of the day, I didn’t become a weightlifter, but a filmmaker, which is unconventional in its own way. I really hope that the film inspires young girls all over the world. That’s my ultimate dream.
In a way, it’s also reflected in your own path too, because it has been unconventional as well.
M.Z.: You’re absolutely right. I will never make a film about something that I am not touched by myself. And, I respect Nahla and Zebiba. I respect all the girls at this training site and how they’re breaking stereotypes in their own way and how they are fighting for their dreams, no matter what. And, as I said, I was touched by it as a teenager and I think the film can inspire and touch teenagers because it’s not that common, at least in the Arab region, to have a film with strong female role models. I really hope the film sheds some light on these amazing women and because, unlike many films coming out of the Arab region, the women in this film are not really victims. They know what they want and they just go for it, no matter what. And, I hope that the audience feel the same I feel towards the story.
And, in that sense, what, according to you, makes the film so timely now, post #metoo and in a broader discussion about women?
M.Z.: It’s very crucial now, because, first of all, in the previous years, there haven’t been that many films about women, and second of all, there aren’t that many films about women made by women or films made by women in general. So, I think now with the world finally realizing that women need to have more presence in the media, it’s essential. #metoo happened in the US, but it had waves in other parts of the world, like in Egypt. At the moment, there’s a big debate about women’s rights and I think the film is very appropriate and very needed for this moment. I’ve been working on an impact campaign to take the film to schools and not only have young girls watch the film, but also young boys and that opens the discussion about gender, about stereotypes about women, about the gender bias in language. At the end of the day, in Egypt, we still have this expression where we say: “Be a man” like being a man is the term for being strong. I hope that when young boys watch the film and watch Zebiba, they realize: “Oh, but she is not a man, she’s a girl,” and I hope that the film can change perspectives a little bit.
In fact, Nahla, toward the end of the film, tells Zebiba: “lift like a man once,” which also leads me to the title – “Lift Like a Girl.” Can you talk about the choice of the title?
M.Z.: Actually, as I’ve said, in the Egyptian culture, that’s the term used to define strength, and I have a big problem with this term, but I think my role as a director is to film reality and this is the way Nahla speaks, this is the way the girls speak to each other. They basically tell themselves to be men or to be lifting like men and, for me, it was such an interesting moment because in all Egypt there is no weightlifter, be it a man or a woman, who has achieved everything Nahla Ramadan has, so instead of her telling Zebiba to lift like Nahla or to lift like a woman, she tells her: “lift like a man,” but this is steeped in her culture – or the Egyptian culture. But I think that’s exactly why I picked the title “Lift Like a Girl.” I also want Zebiba to know that she needs to lift like a girl, that she doesn’t need to lift like a man. And as you watch the film, everybody’s telling Zebiba to lift like a man. That’s a common thing in our culture, but then, at the end, you find this little girl who tells her just to be strong because this little girl doesn’t know all the social pressure, the social culture or the social terms of being strong; all this little girl knows is that Zebiba needs to be strong to lift that weight. She doesn’t need to be a man. She doesn’t need to be a boy because she is a girl. And, I think it’s very important for us to be that little girl and remember and just unlearn all these social terms that we have accepted in our culture. And, I hope that the film opens this discussion and this debate.
Have the girls seen the film?
M.Z.: They were the first to see it once we were done with the editing.
What were their thoughts?
M.Z.: They are really happy. They are so touched by it. Nahla was so touched by it because she wasn’t present during most of the shoot. She really loved it. I think that it was only when they watched the final film that they realized what I was doing. After the second year, they started asking when the film was going to come out, when they were going to see it and I was telling them: “I’m working on it; I’m working on the edit.” I always kept them informed about what we were doing and once the film was done, I really wanted them to watch it and see themselves because not everyone understands what it means to have a film about them being made. They were so surprised because, most of the time, they would actually forget about us. Nahla even told me in the end that she wasn’t really thinking that we were filming, she didn’t know we would have that in the film. But, after four years of being with them, they really treated the camera as part of the team or the family.
Do you think the film will help them get a new training center maybe?
M.Z.: That’s what I really hope! And, that’s what I’m really trying to do at the moment – seeing how I can really support them and, through the impact campaign, trying to get people to support the training site, or maybe sponsors to sponsor them as top athletes. I really hope that the film can help them with this and I’ll do my best to help with that.
And, what do you think the reception of the film will be like in Egypt as it has already been selected for the Cairo International Film Festival?
M.Z.: I’m really excited about the screening at the Cairo International Film Festival because it’s the biggest film festival in Egypt, and the film is representing Egypt in the International Competition. I really hope that the audience like the film. I hope that when it screens there, it can help the girls back at the training site as well.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
M.Z.: Yes, I’m a feminist and I’m proud of that! I know that some people don’t like to use the word “feminist,” but I do. But, again, when I’m making a film, I don’t try to make it from a feminist point of view, but more from my own personal point of view, which is feminist at the end of the day. I like to make films that I can relate to as mine first, and then, of course, I reflect my own beliefs and my own takes on life in the films that I make. I don’t start from the point of “I want to make a feminist film,” but more of “I want to make a film that I myself can be touched by, can relate to and would love to watch.”
Can you talk about your production company, Cléo Media?
M.Z.: It’s a new production company that I started. Lift Like a Girl is its first production, actually, and it is a company that focuses mainly on projects made by women or about women. I’m only interested in the production of female-driven content because I’ve been trying to make films for some years now and I realize that all the films that I really like and I can relate to are films about women. With all due respect to films about men, I am not interested in them. I cannot relate to the characters. With Cléo Media, I just want to help this type of projects because I don’t think there are that many. I think there are very few projects about women and projects made by women. There are some projects about women, but made by men, from a very male perspective and I often have a problem with that, so I just want to use my experience or anything I have to help other women make more films and also produce my own films. It’s my way of making the kind of films that I want to make.
There has been so much talk about the situation of women in film in the past almost three years. What is your take on that? How is it in Egypt?
M.Z.: Globally, I think it is very important for women to speak about the situation, first, because let’s assume that no one knows about it, which is not true, but let’s assume that. So once women speak about that, no one has this excuse; it’s out there, everybody knows about it and accepting would be a big problem. For so many years, women globally haven’t had their rights or equality either in pay, in representation or in conditions and I knew that sooner or later, that that would’ve happened, because that’s what History tells us. I am very happy that it’s happening now. Regarding Egypt, its film industry is the industry where women are represented the most in the country, probably because Egyptian Cinema was founded by women – mainly actresses wanting to produce films. They produced the first Egyptian films and, for many years, that was the way and because women were part of the industry since day one or they were the founders in a way, it is accepted in the culture. So, as a woman working in the film industry in Egypt, I don’t have as many difficulties as a woman working in film somewhere else. But again, in society, of course, women have lots of challenges and that needs to be discussed.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.Z.: My favorite filmmaker ever is Agnès Varda and I basically love all her films. All of them. It’s so hard to pick one!
What are your next projects?
M.Z.: It’s a fiction film this time. It’s called Rainbows Don’t Last Long and it is a story about a separated couple who realize that their only daughter has a genetic disease that will cause her to lose her eyesight, so they take her on a road trip across Egypt before that happens. And, on this road trip, the couple explore their marriage and separation and what went wrong.
Photo credits: Mayye Zayed.
This interview was conducted at the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.