Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

TIFF Review: Femininity is synonymous with strength in ‘Lift Like a Girl’ weightlifting doc

Numerous independent studies have shown that if any given field becomes dominated by women, its inherent value becomes proportionately reduced; not simply in terms of financial compensation, but how society itself estimates its prestige.  The ambition and work ethic of women is worthless if patriarchy’s deep roots keep us on a treadmill, always striving for an equity which will inevitably escape us because the game itself is rigged.  Mayye Zayed’s first documentary feature, LIFT LIKE A GIRL, posits: what if physical strength—most often associated with our definition of masculinity—becomes inextricably associated with womanhood?

Zayed’s camera observes like a fly on the wall; objective and unobtrusive.  It follows the life of world-class Egyptian weightlifter Asmaa Ramadan (nicknamed “Zebiba”) over the course of four formative years in her young life, documenting her ascent between the age of 14 and 18.  Zebiba contains multitudes: she’s a stubborn and tireless fighter, but also quiet, calm, and endearingly sensitive.  She trains in a dirt yard lined with old chainlink fence, conditioning her still-growing body without the luxury of state-of-the-art equipment.  Captain Ramadan watches like a hawk, more than 20 years of coaching experience in his corner.  He’s equal parts joyous and cruel, elevating her esteem one moment and hurling stinging insults the next.

It’s difficult to ignore the effect his frequent verbal barrages have on Zebiba.  Her coach strictly monitors her caloric input and body weight, a psychological minefield for any teenage girl.  She thrives on constructive criticism and wilts under anger, often aiming too high on her first attempts in competitions, but rallying at the last minute to manage a victory in spite of her emotional distress.  As frustrating as Captain’s methods are, it’s apparent that he learned them during his own past experience as an Olympic weightlifter.  Every time he cuts her down, he’s recycling a tactic once used on him.

Pitching his training program to fathers who walk past his street gym, Captain tells them: “Boys are outdated”, implying that girls are hungrier by virtue of their circumstance.  Male children are told from the cradle that they’re strong and thus have nothing to prove.  “I won’t make her wear a headscarf” he assures one man considering enrolling his daughter in the program.  The complexity of the idiom arrests, especially when Captain shouts at a group of gawking boys, “You think only women can bellydance?” encouraging them to gyrate their hips.   We impose arbitrary  value and categorization to weightlifting and dancing, even though neither  is feminine or masculine, strong or weak.

Captain’s awareness of this truth makes it much more disorienting when he demands that his athletes “be a man” or “grow some balls”.  After a while, these phrases almost lose their connotation with masculinity, as if the girls appropriated and re-defined them through the sheer force of their skill.  A hulking mountain of a man listens, overtly respectful, as Nahla Ramadan (Captain’s daughter, and one of Egypt’s first competitive female weightlifters) patiently corrects the errors in his form.

When tragedy strikes, Zebiba’s mental toughness—an area she’s always struggled with—is put to the test.  Sobbing as she lines herself up to complete a clean and jerk at a competition, her balance wavers and she drops the bar.  Nahla takes her aside, pulls her close, and says: “You’ve won millions of times before.  Just lift for yourself and enjoy”.  All Zebiba needed were words of love and encouragement: she returns to the mat and completes a gold-medal lift.  The contrast of coaching methods is breathtaking.  With her gentleness, Nahla gave a parched seed the nourishment it needed to grow.  Zayed shows us why we should see femininity as synonymous with strength.

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.

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