Directed by Sally El Hosaini, it is based on the early struggles of real-life professional swimmers from Syria Yusra Mardini and Sara Mardini. The Swimmers is available to stream on Netflix.
Sally El Hosaini’s new Netflix film is as much of a sports biopic as it is a survival drama and a coming-of-age story of two Syrian sisters trying to escape conflict in their country for a better life in Germany.
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But it would be a disservice to try and box a story so extraordinary in any cinematic genre. For The Swimmers is all of it and so much more. It is based on the early struggles of real-life professional swimmers Yusra Mardini and Sara Mardini — played with remarkable ease by Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa. It’s a brilliant casting coup for it is the palpable chemistry between the Issa sisters that keeps the film afloat by plugging in holes whenever necessary.
The first half is taut, immersive, and thrilling, and makes for a fantastic movie-watching experience. The initial few minutes establish the happy family life of the Mardinis in Damascus. It’s full of cheer and dreams. It is 2011. But the film immediately cuts to four years later when everything has changed. Bombings and killings have become a part of the everyday. Anyone could be next. It’s when their sports complex gets attacked during a practice session that the Mardinis decide to let their daughters flee the country and find refuge in Germany.
So in a heartbeat, Yusra and Sara’s sheltered life with their parents and much younger third sister gets upturned and they find themselves at the mercy of strangers taking risks that could prove fatal. They fly to Turkey and from there take an overcrowded inflatable boat to the Greek coast of Lesbos. When the dinghy caves in midway, the sisters jump into the sea and swim everyone to safety only to reach a shore swarmed with lifejackets, a physical testimony to the countless who had taken the risky journey before them and the many more who will be.
Iain Kitching’s inspired editing and DOP Christopher Ross’s fearless camerawork make the poignancy of forced displacement visceral, giving an insider’s perspective to harrowing headlines and haunting photographs of dead children being washed ashore. The Swimmers is brimming with brilliantly shot and choreographed scenes. Watch out for one early in the film when the Mardini sisters are dancing to Sia’s Titanium at a rooftop bar as bombs burn their city to rubble in the backdrop. Then there’s another of the two girls resting in a makeshift tent in the afternoon looking at an uncertain future as the sunlight filtered through the fabric washes them in delicious kaleidoscopic patterns. Finally, there’s the end shot—them playing in the sea at sunset. It’s dazzling and poignant the way sibling relationships—especially between sisters—most often are.
Yusra and Sara’s story is so incredible that no matter how anyone chooses to tell it, it can never really lose steam. However, in the second half, after the girls find temporary shelter in a refugee camp in Berlin and Yusra starts to train again, the film begins to get banal, drops all its distinctiveness, and transforms into a typical underdog sports drama. The path that it treads from then on to the grand finale at the 2016 Rio Olympics is as predictable as a daily commuter’s way home. But Yusra’s win nonetheless feels overwhelming with a tinge of poetic justice.
The film ends at this moment of triumph but the story of the Mardini sisters, especially Sara, doesn’t. She finally finds her true calling—helping refugees get safe passage across Lesbos border. She is currently under arrest over “people-smuggling charges”. If convicted, she’ll be incarcerated for 20 years. But The Swimmers, as the film’s title suggests, is too fixated on Yusra’s Olympian glory to pay Sara’s quiet heroism much attention.
The story is brave, but its telling isn’t. El Hosaini doesn’t trust her material or craft enough to not fall for the established tropes. The Swimmers, as exquisite as it is, would have been a much more rewarding watch had El Hosaini focused more on the Syrian migrant crisis than the swimming. Sara tells Yusra ahead of her final swim, “You are so much more than an Olympian.” The film could have been too.