Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ is a true story of refugee sisters—with more than one hero
In the opening scene of the long-awaited film “The Swimmers,” recently released on Netflix, Syrian sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini float face-down in a swimming pool, competing to see who can hold their breath the longest. A pink watch marks the time passing by, millisecond by millisecond. It is 2011 in a Damascus suburb, the first year in the civil war that will ultimately see hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and millions displaced. But at that moment, the scene still remains calm. Around them, children are learning to swim on inflatable rings and alligators, parents are hovering over the water, music is blaring from speakers. As the sisters finally rise to the surface, we wonder: How long will this scene of ordinary life last? How much time do these sisters have left before everything changes?
“The Swimmers” follows the now-famous story of the Mardini sisters, competitive swimmers who escaped the war in Syria in 2015, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis in Europe, crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece on a rubber dinghy. They were partway through the passage when the inflatable boat, which was meant for seven people but had been packed with 20 by smugglers, began to fill with water. Realizing that the dinghy would sink beneath so much weight, the sisters jumped into the water, swimming alongside it and supporting it for hours until it reached shore. In a story that became known around the world, Yusra later joined the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, competing in the butterfly in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The same young woman who had swum to safety and risked her life to help others was now swimming on a global stage and inspiring millions.
“The Swimmers” follows the now-famous story of the Mardini sisters, competitive swimmers who escaped the war in Syria in 2015, crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece on a rubber dinghy.
“The Swimmers” is focused on the bonds of sisterhood, and the details of the painful journey that took Yusra and Sara out of their ordinary lives in Damascus and on the treacherous path to Germany. It is a film intent on telling the story through the lens of how they actually experienced it, not how the outside world projected it onto them.
Sally El Hosaini, the Welsh-Egyptian director of the film, recently wrote that, as a child growing up in Egypt, she never saw young women like herself on screen. In “The Swimmers,” El Hosaini casts real-life Lebanese sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa to play the Mardini sisters, their connection evident throughout the film, which is largely in Arabic and beautifully translated into English. Nathalie, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Yusra Mardini (and who learned how to swim to play the role), captures the girl who is eager to follow the ambitions of her swimming coach father, orienting her life toward representing Syria in the Olympics. Manal embodies Sara Mardini, the older and rebellious sister, fierce and prone to partying, who begins to question the point of still swimming as many of her friends die and the rest flee to Europe.
Though the film opens near Yusra’s 13th-birthday party, the first month of the war in Syria, it quickly skips ahead to four years later in 2015. By then, soldiers openly wander the streets of Damascus. A bus the girls are traveling on is targeted by snipers. Though Yusra remains focused on making the Syrian Olympic team, her dream is interrupted when, during a swim meet, a missile drops into the water of the swimming pool.
The clock is clearly running out.
We are completely drawn into the movement of the waves, the wailing of a baby, the panic of passengers.
Because the film is based on real-life events, the plot is determined by several other real-life clocks ticking in the background. One is the 2016 Olympic Games the following year, which Yusra hopes to qualify for, if it is not too dangerous for her to continue training. But another, more complex bureaucratic clock is at play. The year 2015 is the most dangerous in the Syrian war and also a year in which real-life Yusra Mardini is still 17. The sisters need to escape to Europe before Yusra turns 18. As a minor in Europe, she will be able to apply for family reunification, which will allow her parents and younger sister to join them in Germany by traveling by plane, not risking their lives on the sea crossing. Yet there remains a catch. To become a refugee, in Yusra’s eyes, means no longer belonging to any country. She will be stateless, unlikely to be able to compete for Syria and not yet able to compete for Germany.
Once the sisters convince their father that they should travel to Europe, they are joined by their cousin Nizar, a young D.J. and student. They fly to Turkey where they find a smuggler, who takes them by bus to the coast. There, they are left alongside other refugees without food and water until finally being put onto a crowded, patched-up rubber boat, pushed into the sea and abandoned.
The sea crossing is at the center of the film, and it is difficult not to feel seasick while watching it. El Hosaini does not take any pains to slow it down. We are completely drawn into the movement of the waves, the wailing of a baby, the panic of passengers who do not know how to swim and, finally, the dinghy filling up with water as night approaches. We are constantly made aware of how tiny they are against the enormity of the sea. As the passengers begin to panic, it is Sara—the rebellious older sister—who takes charge of the situation. She addresses those on the dinghy and asks: “Who here knows how to swim?”
“The Swimmers” depicts the tender relationships between refugees traveling together, many who are played by refugee actors.
When she sees a show of hands, she instructs: “People with your hands up—choose someone with their hands down. It’s your duty to help them. It’s your responsibility.”
Sara’s instructions become the challenge of the film. Who among us knows how to swim? What responsibilities do we carry as a result? How are we called to offer our gifts for others? From then on, the film is not so much about the sisters’ physical journey, but about their slow discovery that, should they survive, they have something within them to offer those refugees still struggling along the way.
As I watched the film, I was stunned by the details of the crossing: passengers praying from the Quran, throwing their belongings into the water, tying shoes to a backpack to keep them dry. I soon learned why the scene is so authentic. The film’s associate producer was Hassan Akkad, a Syrian filmmaker who was thrown into prison for protesting against the Syrian government. After he was released and decided to escape to Europe as a refugee, he filmed his journey. When he crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece, his own dinghy began to sink. As the refugees on it nearly drowned, Akkad somehow continued filming, obtaining footage that later became part of the BAFTA-award-winning series “Exodus: Our Journey to Europe.” Today he is a filmmaker in London. It’s no wonder that the scene of the crossing in “The Swimmers” was painfully accurate. Akkad himself had lived it.
That’s only one of the many beautiful, authentic scenes in the film that make it so worth watching. “The Swimmers” depicts the tender relationships between refugees traveling together, many who are played by refugee actors. It does not shy away from some of the war’s most difficult topics. Why is Yusra’s talent valued so much more in Europe than those of so many others who escaped? Why are refugees from some countries treated as more worthy than others? For many viewers, the most painful scenes, such as that of the Greek café owner who refuses them water, or the bureaucratic office worker who examines their asylum case, might also challenge us to examine where we find ourselves. And while we might be expecting a happy ending, viewers will be left stunned after reading the explanations during the end credits of where the Mardini sisters and their family find themselves today.
“The Swimmers” succeeds because it takes a story that we thought that we knew and complicates it. Who are the real heroes in this narrative? Is it Yusra, who ultimately swims in the Olympics? Sara, who jumps into the water first to help others who might drown? Their father, who gave his life to raising his girls to be independent? Is it their cousin Nizar, who struggles with the humiliation of not succeeding in Europe but always sleeps on the floor so that his cousins can have the bed? Sven, the German coach who drops everything to train them?
The film does not seek to answer the question but to explore the ties that bind us, the fact that no one of us can carry everything alone. We need one another. The beauty of the film is in the way in which almost every one of its characters is revealed to be a “swimmer”—taking on the responsibility of carrying others once they become aware of their own gifts. It is a celebration not only of survival but of those who—in the face of danger and discrimination—still find ways to guide one another to shore.