Since 2016, over 5 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country with most seeking refuge in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It’s not this group of people, though, who have caught the world’s attention if only for just a few minutes. It’s the 1.1 million who risked their lives by heading to Europe, many arriving in dangerously overcrowded inflatable dinghies, landing on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. That is, assuming they survive the 12 km journey across the narrow straight that separates the island from Turkey. It doesn’t sound like a huge distance but, in last month alone, 22 migrants died and dozens more went missing after two of these refugee boats sank in Greek waters. The journey of the Mardini sisters had a happier outcome, and their inspirational story is chronicled in the Netflix film, THE SWIMMERS.
Sara Mardini and her younger sister Yusra (played by real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa) live a comfortable middle class existence in a suburb of Damascus. Their father, who was a swimmer on Syria’s national team back in the day, coaches the girls but his attention is focused on Yusra as she has the talent and ambition to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio while Sara would rather have a good time at the disco where their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) DJs. As the war hits closer to home and their safety becomes more precarious, the sisters and Nizar decide to leave their country and head to Germany, taking the treacherous route over sea and land that so many others have tried before them. For Sara, her goal is to get her parents and youngest sister out of Syria before it’s too late for them. For Yusra, it’s about competing in the Olympics for her beloved country but how can she do that as a refugee?
Watching THE SWIMMERS, I was struck by how harrowing and, often times, how hopeless the Mardinis’ journey must have been. We’ve all seen the images of the body of the two-year-old boy that washed ashore on the Turkish beach back in 2018 as well as those of the human migrant caravan that walked across eastern Europe, but we didn’t get to know who these people were/are. Too many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have painted refugees simply as economic migrants in search of a better life elsewhere but even the ones who do fall into that category have still made that choice because what they left behind was so horrible that it was worth risking their lives, and the lives of their young children, to try. My own grandparents were migrants who saw that there was no future for them in eastern Europe. They were right because their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces who remained there were all murdered in the Holocaust.
The Issa sisters do great work here, giving voices to two anonymous faces in the throng. Their chemistry is natural, which helps overcome the sometimes stilted dialogue, which was co-written by Jack Thorne (TV’s ENOLA HOLMES) and director Sally El Hosaini (MY BROTHER THE DEVIL). Although the film is called THE SWIMMERS – plural, the emphasis is really on Yusra, which is a bit of a disappointment as Sara’s arc is arguably just as impressive. Unfortunately, her story is relegated to a post-script that I believe is still unresolved. The film is also slightly too long, and much of the film’s scenes at the Olympics could have been shifted to the epilogue as well. Overall, though, THE SWIMMERS is an interesting and important story that will move audiences.
THE SWIMMERS is streaming on Netflix now. As one of the characters in the film says, “Not all superheroes wear capes.” That’s certainly the case for the Mardini sisters.
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