‘The Swimmers’ Review: A gripping tale of sisterhood, Olympic dreams and tragedy
“Swim for me, for all those who have died trying to find a new life – swim for all of us.”
From war-ravaged Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, The Swimmers follows the journey of two sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, who escaped war to pursue a dream. Coming to Netflix November 23, The Swimmers is a powerful reminder of the power of human resilience.
Directed by Egyptian-British filmmaker Sally El Hossainy and co-written by British El Hossainy screenwriter Jack Thorne, The Swimmers – first premiered as an opener for the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and had its MENA premiere in of the 44th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 16th.
In an undeniably powerful depiction of adversity and triumph, the film follows the lives of swimmers Yusra and Sarah Mardini (played by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa) as their lives in Damascus are shattered by the 2015 Syrian civil war. The horror that has become her life forces her to do the impossible: the swimmers are no longer swimming for medals, they are swimming for their lives.
Note: Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers. The main plot points of the film are discussed below.
The story: The heroes who wear bathing caps
In many parts of the world where violence is rampant, residents often become restless, absent witnesses. The struggles of Yusra, Sarah, and every character in the film aren’t universal — lucky those who can’t relate — but this is where The Swimmers shines: It does an impeccable job of telling the truth about people war-torn are countries.
The two sisters are both coached by their father, Ezzat (played by Ali Suliman), who trains them to be professional swimmers. By 2015, Syria’s civil war was intensifying, and while Sarah loses interest early on, Yusra is still determined to make it to the Olympics.
“Do you still see the point of the training?” Sarah asks Yusra in the film.
In one of the film’s most revealing moments, Sarah and Yusra dance to David Guetta’s “Titanium” song on a rooftop nightclub while rockets light up the sky in the background: a perfect portrayal of deafness.
As the situation in Syria worsens, a bomb falls into a pool during one of Yusra’s races and a collision with soldiers on a bus turns into an act of harassment – and so the sisters decide it’s time for them to leave.
They convince their father to let them move to Germany with their aspiring DJ cousin Nizar (played by Ahmed Malek), where they will file for family reunification to bring the rest of their family over.
On a treacherous journey to Germany, with shady contacts and precarious transport, the sisters and cousin, together with 18 other refugees from all over the world, board an overcrowded inflatable boat that goes to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The sea is unpredictable, and in what is particularly the film’s most harrowing scene, the sisters jump overboard to lighten the dinghy’s cargo. Perhaps this is one of the film’s most important scenes as it shows the sisters’ resilience, selflessness and bravery despite the circumstances.
Although the sisters manage to make their way to Berlin and avoid attempted rape and capture, their journey does not end there.
The viewing experience: There are happy endings
Many people may argue that the film’s ending was a stereotypical sports drama ending because viewers are led to believe that Yusra won an Olympic gold medal. She did not. But that’s where El Hossainy’s brilliance comes in: sometimes audiences have to believe that happy endings exist.
The use of music in the soundtrack is an integral part of conveying the inspirational and moving message behind The Swimmers. El Hossainy uses loud anthems, including Australian singer Sia’s “Unstoppable”: a hymn of empowerment.
While all of the music on the soundtrack fits well with an inspirational film, the film is set in 2015 – including the songs by Sawareekh Eda Eda (What What), which was released in 2021, and Sharmoofers’ “single,” which was released in 2020, were odd placements in the film for those who were paying attention.
During a panel with El Hossainy, she explained that the playlist in the film was inspired by Yusra and Sarah, making the soundtrack even more special.
The chemistry between real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa is palpable, especially as they reflect Yusra and Sarah’s sisterhood and relationship. In a way, it felt like seeing the real Yusra and Sarah Mardini on screen.
For a 134-minute film, the pace was strong and at no point did it feel boring. However, the end credits scene after Sarah’s situation is revealed makes the audience wish the film would focus more on her story as well.
Overall, this film is a tribute to the underdogs. It crosses over into the reality of many people around the world. Yes, Yusra and Sarah survived, but The Swimmers also sheds a light on those who don’t survive the displacement – who don’t make it to the other side.
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