Egyptian director Mayye Zayed, who studied film and documaking at Wellesley and MIT, spent four years following the main character of her female empowerment doc, “Lift Like a Girl,” Zebiba (which means “raisin” in Arabic), who at age nine entered former Olympic athlete Captain Ramadan’s weightlifting training camp on a vacant Alexandria lot.

After world-premiering in Toronto and screening at Doc NYC and Dok Leipzig – where it received the Golden Dove award and qualification for submission to compete for the 2021 Academy Award for Documentary Feature – “Lift Like a Girl” is now having its Arabic premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival. It’s the only doc selected for Cairo’s main competition. Zayed spoke to Variety from Egypt about the challenges of her passion project and what’s next. Edited excerpts from the conversation.

Simply put, what drew you to the project?

It all started for me in 2003, back then I was just 18. One day I read in the news that Nahla Ramadan, an Egyptian girl from Alexandria, who was training on the street, had become the world champion in (female) weightlifting. The story was so surprising to all Egyptians, including myself, because we didn’t know that Egyptian women could compete in this sport. Then when I had the chance, in 2014, to actually meet Captain Ramadan, her father and coach, I knew immediately that this was a story I wanted to follow and make a film about.

This is a real observational doc in that you never get the sense that the characters are conscious of the camera. How did you manage that?

I spent so many years with them that at the end we became kind of like family. But at first I actually had a problem with that. Captain Ramadan would always talk to the camera, because he was used to TV. So I had this very early talk with him trying to explain that I want to make an observational documentary. Also I think that what really helped is that we were a very small crew. And from day one I was very clear with Zebiba and the other girls and Captain Ramadan that whenever anyone feels uncomfortable with the camera they just let us know, and we won’t film them. That happened at the beginning, especially with the older girls who didn’t want to be part of the film, and I totally respected that. But then after some time they kind of wanted us to film them!

In its long gestation the project went through many labs, including the American Film Showcase Documentary Lab at USC and Film Independent’s doc lab. It seems it was made with an international audience in mind. 

I think it can be very interesting to an international audience because it breaks stereotypes especially about women from the Middle East. There is this notion that women in the MENA region are always oppressed, or whatever. There are these cliches. And I think part of the problem is that many of the films coming from the region are made by men. They tell the story from their perspective. Of course women in the Middle East don’t have all their rights, that’s for sure. But I don’t think they are weak. So that’s what I really tried to do in the film. To show the strong side of the girls, but also their human side. They are not like superheroes, they are real people. And I think that can be interesting.

What’s next?

I am developing a feature called “Rainbows Don’t Last Long.” I basically wrote a first draft and then I developed it with Film Independent, and I also have another Global Media Markers fellowship to develop it in L.A.

It’s about a separated couple who realize that their only daughter has this rare genetic disease that will cause her to lose her eyesight very soon. So they decide to take her on a road trip across Egypt and during this road-trip they rediscover their marriage. Or rather, the reason for the failure of their marriage.