TIFF 2020 Women Directors: Meet Mayye Zayed – “Lift Like a Girl”

Mayye Zayed is an Egyptian filmmaker, director, producer, director of photography, and editor, and the founder of Cléo Media. She is the recipient of Film Independent’s Global Media Makers Fellowship for 2017 and 2019. In 2013, she co-directed, co-produced, and co-shot the collaborative feature “The Mice Room.” In 2016 she made the award-winning short “A Stroll Down Sunflower Lane.”

“Lift Like a Girl” will screen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place September 10-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MZ: On a busy, noisy, high-traffic street corner in Alexandria, Egypt, a seemingly vacant corner lot surrounded by chain link fencing is the training site of Egypt’s most elite champions – female weightlifters.

Zebiba (Arabic for “raisin”) has been training at the site for five years, since she was nine, following in the footsteps of Egypt’s most famous athletes of all time. [This includes] the first Arab, female, two-time Olympic medalist weightlifter, Abeer Abdel Rahman, and World champion and Olympic athlete Nahla Ramadan. Nahla’s father, the visionary Captain Ramadan, has bred female champions from his makeshift corner-lot training site for over two decades — four Olympic, nine World and 17 Pan African champions. 

Now, it is Zebiba’s turn. But can Zebiba put aside her youthful instincts, and direct her focus to be the weightlifting champion the Captain is sure she is?

 W&H: What drew you to this story?

MZ: In 2003, Nahla Ramadan became the gold medalist world champion. She was only 15 years old. I was a teenager at the time, and I was so inspired and touched by the story of this girl who was training in the streets of Alexandria with her father, Captain Ramadan. I followed Nahla’s story in the media and news.

Back then I didn’t know that women could do weightlifting. She and her sister, Nagham Ramadan, were actually the first Egyptian women to play this sport. But Nahla became one of the most [recognized] Egyptian athletes of all time. I still remember that all Egyptians were cheering for her in every Olympics she was competing for.

That’s why, when I had the chance to meet Captain Ramadan, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a film about this world, a world that I was so fascinated with when I was just 18, and was still fascinated with many years later. I felt that if Nahla’s story had such a huge effect on me as a teenager, then this film can have a huge impact on other teenagers.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

MZ: As much as I hope that the film can inspire young girls to pursue their unconventional dreams, I also hope that it can open a discussion about gender roles, stereotypes, and gender bias in language. 

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MZ: The biggest challenge was the lack of funding the first two years, but once we received the first fund, everything else fell into place. Then COVID-19 changed all our plans for post-production. I had to cancel my trip to Copenhagen to work on the final sound mix when Denmark closed the borders.

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

MZ: For the first two years of production, the film was self-funded. We only received travel grants to travel to some workshops to develop the film, or festival markets to pitch it. Then we received the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Docs Fund for production, which was the first grant that we got by the end of 2016. By that time, we had a better edit for the footage that we were filming in the first two years, so the funders could see some parts of the film. [This] led to a few more grants like the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture, which we received after the third time [applying].

Anna Bolster and Anke Petersen from JYOTI Film became the German co-producers of the film, and we made a co-production deal with ZDF Das kleine Fernsehspiel. Since the post-production sound was a collaboration between an Egyptian sound designer and a Danish sound designer, it was supported by the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute and International Media Support (IMS) through the Danish Arab Partnership program. A Zurich-based post-production studio offered us a partial grant to support the color grading and DCP mastering of the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MZ: I started feeling that I wanted to make films the moment I realized that I didn’t see myself, or any [of] my family and friends, represented in most of the films in Egypt. I could hardly relate to any of the characters I grew up watching, so I felt it would be nice if I make films about people that I can relate to.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MZ: The best advice I received was just to get a camera and make a film with the least possible, and just learn in the process. The other great advice I received is [to wait until] the tenth draft of a script before you show it to anyone, and that scriptwriting is just re-writing.

The worst advice was focusing on the technicalities and “production value,” as if having a great camera would make a great film. [This] is something I totally disagree with.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MZ: While you’re making your films, you’ll meet a lot of people who will put you down and tell you the kind of films they want you to make. Don’t listen to them — keep on making the film you want to make.

The funding process won’t be easy at all. You have to think outside the box, and start knocking on doors that don’t necessarily fund films, but would love to support you as a female filmmaker.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MZ: “Beaches of Agnes.” It’s a beautiful self-portrait of the great Agnes Varda and how she reflects on her life, films, and dreams.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

MZ: When the COVID-19 crisis started, I thought it would be a good chance for me to be more productive and do all the things that I wanted to do but never had the time for. However, the shocking news of people dying and getting sick all over the world drained the energy out of me.

On many days and nights, I couldn’t even leave the bed. For more than three months, I did nothing for the first time of my life. Then, the news of the film’s selection in TIFF came along, and for the first time in months I felt that I could be back to work, and finalize the film for the premiere.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

MZ: I think that having people from diverse backgrounds in decision making positions can be a game-changer. But not only that — I think it should also start in supporting emerging diverse voices, and helping them tell their stories artistically and financially.

September 17, 2020
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