“Swim for me, for everyone who died trying to find a new life — swim for all of us.”
From War-ravaged Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, ‘The Swimmers’ retraces the journey of two sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, who escaped a war to chase a dream. Hitting Netflix on 23 November, ‘The Swimmers’ is an empowering reminder of the power of human resilience.
Directed by Egyptian-British filmmaker Sally El Hossainy and co-written by El Hossainy British screenwriter Jack Thorne, The Swimmers – first premiered as an opener for 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and had its MENA premiere in the 44th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on 16 November.
In an undeniably powerful portrayal of adversity and triumph, the film follows the life of swimmers Yusra and Sarah Mardini (played by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa) when their life in Damascus is destroyed by the 2015 civil war in Syria. The horror that has become their lives forces them to the impossible: the swimmers no longer swim for medals, they start swimming for their lives.
Note: Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers. The below discusses key plot points of the film.
The story: the heroes who wear swimming caps
In many parts of the world, where violence is commonplace, the inhabitants often become disquieted absent witnesses. The struggles of Yusra, Sarah, and every character in the film aren’t universal — those who cannot relate to them are lucky— but this is where The Swimmers shines: it does an impeccable job of speaking the truth of people in war-torn countries.
The two sisters are both coached by their father Ezzat (played by Ali Suliman) who trains them to become professional swimmers. By 2015, the civil war in Syria worsens, and while Sarah begins losing interest early on, Yusra is still determined to make it to the Olympics.
“Do you see the point of training anymore?” Sarah asks Yusra in the film.
In one of the most eye-opening moments in the film, 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 representation of numbness.
As the situation in Syria worsens, a bomb drops in a pool during one of Yusra’s races, and a run-in with soldiers on a bus becomes an act of molestation – and so, the sisters decide it is time for them to leave.
They cajole their father to let them move to Germany with their aspiring-DJ cousin Nizar (played by Ahmed Malek) where they will apply for a family reunification to bring the rest of their family.
On a treacherous journey to Germany, with shady contacts and precarious transport, the sisters and cousin, along with 18 other refugees from around the world, board an overcrowded dinghy heading to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The sea is unpredictable, and in notably the most harrowing scene in the film, the sisters leap overboard to lighten the load of the dinghy. Perhaps this is one of the most important scenes in the film, because it portrays the sisters’ resilience, selflessness, and bravery despite the circumstances.
Though the sisters manage to make their way to Berlin, evading attempted rape and capture, their journey does not end there.
The watching experience: happy endings exist
Many people may argue that the ending of the movie was a stereotypical sports drama ending, because viewers are led to believe that Yusra won an Olympic gold medal. She did not. But this is where El Hossainy’s brilliance comes in: sometimes the audience needs to believe that happy endings exist.
The use of music in the soundtrack is integral to conveying the inspirational and moving message behind ‘The Swimmers’. El Hossainy uses loud anthemic songs, including Australian singer Sia’s ‘Unstoppable’: an anthem of empowerment.
While all the music in the soundtrack is well-fitted for an inspirational film, the film takes place in 2015 — including the songs Sawareekh’s Eda Eda (What What) released in 2021 and Sharmoofers’ ‘Single’ released in 2020 were an odd placement in the film for those paying attention.
During a panel with El Hossainy, she explained that the playlist in the movie was inspired by Yusra and Sarah, which makes the soundtrack all the more special.
The chemistry between real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa is palpable, particularly because they mirror the sisterhood and relationship of Yusra and Sarah. In some way, it felt like watching the real-life Yusra and Sarah Mardini on-screen.
For a 134-minute film, the pace was strong and did not feel boring at any point. However, the end credits scene, after Sarah’s situation is revealed, makes the audience wish the film focused more on her story as well.
Overall, this movie is an homage to the underdogs. It veers into the reality of many people around the world. Yes, Yusra and Sarah survived, but The Swimmers also sheds light on those who do not survive displacement – who do not make it through to the other side.