‘The Swimmers’, a new Netflix film which follows the inspirational journey made by teenage sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini, who fled war-torn Syria for a new life in Europe and eventually made it the 2016 Rio Olympics as part for the refugee Olympic team.
The remarkable true story, directed by Sally El-Hosaini, and co-written by Jack Thorne, shows how the two brave sisters aged just 16 & 17 at the time, fled the Syrian civil war in 2015 and embarked on a journey to Lebanon and then onto Turkey where they arranged to be smuggled into Greece on a dinghy.
When the engine of the overcrowded dinghy malfunctioned in the middle of the Aegean Sea and the boat began to sink, the heroic sisters helped save the lives of their fellow refugees who could not swim, by courageously jumping into the water and pulling the boat to shore for nearly four hours, saving all of the passengers onboard.
Yusra and Sara had undertaken rigorous swimming training with their coach father, Ezzat, since early childhood, however their dreams of competing in the Olympics were in doubt due the civil war escalating in their home country. However, just a year after their harrowing voyage, Yusra defied all odds and achieved her dream by competed in two swimming events at the biggest sporting event in the world.
The deeply moving film features a cast of well-known Arab and international actors, including Manal Issa and her real-life sister Nathalie Issa as Sara and Yusra, which is the first major role for both sisters, Ahmed Malek, Kinda Alloush, as well as Ali Suleiman, Matthias Schweighöfer, and ‘The Good Karma Hospital’ actor James Krishna Floyd. Speaking of the lead characters and how she drew from her own life experiences, El-Hosaini said:
“So often in cinema, young Arab women are victimized or very religious, or just a certain type of woman that I don’t relate to as much. There’s a whole section of society that never makes it to cinema screens. The chance to show that really excited me — like who Yusra and Sarah were, portraying them honestly and authentically, seeing that in them was the opportunity to show young Arab women in a way that I hadn’t seen them yet, and in a way that I feel is so universal. What inspired me was these young women were able to fly free and look where they ended up when they took their lives into their own hands and were able to make decisions about whether to turn left or right — being able to make primal decisions about their lives. So there was this kind of ironic liberation, I guess, that I related to from my own journey”
The film also cast refugees in various roles from acting – including some of the actors in the Aegean sea crossing scene as well as Mo, the smuggler – to production crew, many reliving their true to life experiences.
El-Hosaini said. “Obviously there was a duty of care – we made sure there were counsellors on hand for people. But everybody who participated really wanted the reality [of their experiences] to be shown, that it’s sometimes not the way you see it in the news. That was my aspiration. I wanted to go beyond the headlines and allow the audience to participate in the journey with the sisters, rather than looking at them from the outside.”
El-Hosaini was keen to tell the up-lifting and inspiring story whilst also shining a light on the very real and ongoing refugee crisis, it’s coverage by mainstream media and attitudes towards refugees.
She said: “This story has a happy ending, but I also wanted to honor the 99% who were not that lucky and highlight the bigger refugee story. The refugee crisis is indeed political and is lacking empathy. The displacement of people has been happening for hundreds of years and with climate change, people are going to be displaced. You only see statistics of refugees; I wanted to present a different story, one of love, empathy and emotions”
Watch the trailer here: