Swimmers (2022)

Remarkable true story of two sisters who escape war in Syria to arrive in Germany, defying all odds and then train for Olympics.

6/15/20234 min read

Nathalie and Manal Issa as Mardini sisters
Nathalie and Manal Issa as Mardini sisters

English, German,

35 minutes, 2022

Director : Sally El Hosaini

Cast : Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Ahmed Malek, Matthais Schweighofer

Awards : World priemere, Toronto International film festival, 2022; Nominated for outstanding British film in British Academy Film Awards,2023;

First things first. This film is based on a true story of Sara and Yusra Mardini, swimming champions of Syria who were caught up in Syrian civil war. They decide to escape the war zone and this is their story of triumph, depicting Yusra Mardini’s journey from escaping war to finally landing in an Olympic swimming competition, which was her and her father’s long cherished dream.

The film is clearly divided in three parts. First part deals with their lives in Syria- comfortable, good and lively. But then the war starts and bombs land inside swimming pool- literally. Well, here the drama takes over like it does in so many other situations. That is when sisters start thinking. Like many others, these two decide on a treacherous path to leave Syria, smuggle across Aegean Sea into Europe and aim finally to land in Berlin. However it is easier said than done.

Problems start at home when father who is fond of younger sister Yusra doesn’t want them to risk it. Once he is convinced, then the ordeal starts- Getting into a lifeboat with other refugees which is stuffed with people beyond its capacity, navigating it through sea without any guide, cruising the rough seas and once on land, walking, riding on bus and car, crossing various borders, till they reach Berlin. That journey from Damascus to Berlin takes a lot of screen time and it forms the second part.

The third part starts when Yusra decides to do something still waiting for her papers and approach a swimming club where she convinces the coach to train her. Her training and the journey to participate in Rio Olympics, 2016 as part of ‘Refuge Olympic Team’ forms the last part.

While "Swimmers" highlights the plight of refugees, it also delves into the complex themes of identity, cultural assimilation, and the clash of values. As Sara and Yusra arrive in Germany, they are forced to confront a new set of challenges as they attempt to rebuild their lives in a foreign land. The film offers a nuanced exploration of the tensions and struggles that arise when traditional values clash with the expectations of their new society.

As said earlier, the film is not subtle anywhere. It is in fact quite loud and lengthy at times. Easily the 2 hour 15 minute film could have been made under hundred minutes. Sally El Hosaini, the Welsh Egyptian director already had a readymade winning story at her hands. She could have done with less drama and more subtle and matter of fact handling. In fact one of her earlier films, My brother the devil (2012), did win lot of awards, including awards at Sundance film festival, 2012 and Berlin film festival, 2012.

This being said, one must see the film not from the cinematic point of view but from complete human angle. This is where, Netflix, the producers score. They bring forth the plight of 30 million refugees currently living in various parts of this planet although some in better condition than others, but still- refugees. Interestingly, one of the sisters, Sara after landing in Germany decides to help an organization which is engaged in welfare of refugees. We are informed as film ends that Sara, along with almost two dozens of her associates, is arrested in Greece on charges of human trafficking, money laundering and fraud. If charges are proved correct, she faces up to 20 years in prison. Amnesty international says that the charges are baseless.

Real life sisters and Lebanese actors, Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa play the parts of Sara and Yusra respectively. Both are good and Nathalie (Yusra) does convince us of great swimming talent. What strikes unnatural is that they speak in English with each other for lot of parts. Later I learnt that due to visa procurement problems they couldn’t get Syrian actors.

"Swimmers" is a timely film that sheds light on the refugee crisis while emphasizing the strength and resilience of those who endure it. It serves as a reminder of the shared humanity that connects us all, regardless of borders or circumstances. This powerful and thought-provoking film leaves a lasting impression, prompting viewers to reflect on their own attitudes towards displacement, empathy, and compassion.

'Swimmers' will leave you emotionally moved, inspired, and eager to engage in meaningful conversations about the human capacity for hope in the face of unimaginable challenges.

About the director, Sally El Hosaini

Sally was born in Swansea, Wales and spent her childhood in Cairo, Egypt. She completed her high school education from Atlantic College, Wales and proceeded to study Arabic with Middle eastern studies from Durham University.

Her debut feature film My Brother the Devil won awards internationally, including the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, 2012 Berlin International Film Festival and 2012 BFI London Film Festival Awards, amongst others.

She began her career working on Middle East documentaries and then moved to independent feature films, where she was a production coordinator for many years. She was the specialist researcher of the BAFTA and Emmy Award winning HBO Films/BBC Drama mini-series 'House of Saddam'. She spent almost two and half years in research for the series, which won a Grierson Award for best factual drama.

Swimmers is undoubtedly the film through which, Sally has influenced masses in general and Arab world in particular, thereby raising the issue of refugees and humanity.