In El Hosaini's "The Swimmers", Olympian Yusra Mardini Show the Dangers Refugees Face

By Halima Aliyu | Jan 10, 2023

Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers had one job as a film: to entertain and tell inspiring stories that reflect the social world. It did it perfectly.

After premiering at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2022, the film streamed globally on Netflix on November 23, 2022.

The movie is based on the true story and events of the Mardini sisters who fled their country, Syria, during the 2015 civil war to pursue their dream of competing in the Rio Olympics 2016.  They swam for over three hours, and their act saved the lives of everyone onboard. Eventually granted asylum in Germany, Yusra Mardini began training again at a Berlin pool and was selected to compete as part of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

A journey filled with dangers of human trafficking, attempted rape, and threatening rides across the Mediterranean sea and roads across Europe, the film not only sheds light on the Mardini sisters’ journey. It illuminates the effects of war, allowing the viewers to observe the humanitarian crisis and suffering of refugees.

Yusra (Natalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) are introduced to have been strictly trained by their father (Ali Solaiman) to pursue their dreams of competing in the Olympics. By 2015, the devastating war escalated, making it impossible for the sisters to pursue their swimming careers. 

Viewers will see the girls partying in a nightclub as bombs go off in the background and one scene, a rocket-propelled grenade drops into the swimming pool as Yusra swims, depicting the realities of the Mardini sisters having to see their youth and dreams fade away by destruction. 

The script, co-written by Sally El Hosaini and Jake Thorne, does not strip away the intensity of the dangers and hardship the Mardini faced. Arriving in Turkey on a plane, the powerful cinematic story reaches its climax as the sisters and their cousin board a small, overcrowded boat to reach Germany through Greece. 

As the boat stops and ocean waves crash, the panic intensifies. The audience sees Yusra and Sara grab hold of ropes and swim through the Aegean Sea, fighting to survive.

Steven Price’s musical composition enhanced how monumental the three-hour swim was. David Guetta’s “Titanium” saw the Mardini sisters muster the inner strength to make it against all odds and all waves. It was a testament to their perseverance even when the shore and their dreams seemed far away.

The cinematography helped convey the movie’s empowering message. Contrasting hues of blue throughout the film, from the dark blue threatening ocean to the vivid blue pool in Rio, set the mood as water became a significant symbol both as a place of death and triumph. 

Mardini sister in

Away from the personal story of the sisters, Christopher Ross’s cinematography entailed a unique way of telling the story and diving deeper into the experiences of refugees. 

When the sisters arrive in Greece, the camera zooms out to show a hill of discarded life jackets. This influences the audience to ponder how big the refugee crisis is. 

El Hosaini was able to lay an alternative perspective that overlooked the social stigma refugees face and other social conflicts such as corrupt smuggling and sexual violence. The sisters finding companionship in other refugees, Emad from Afghanistan and Shada and her child from Eritrea, allowed the audience to understand how forced people from different walks of life are to leave their countries and home. Also, Shada disclosing escaping from her husband she described as “not a good man” further confirms the different reasons someone could lose a home.

While El Hosaini chose to tell the story straightforwardly,  upon reaching Germany and Yusra choosing to join the refugee team coached by Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), the movie felt rushed; It exhibited elements of a montage and lacked depth. In addition, the film seemed rather centred on Yusra than Sara. Sara did not share the same will and determination to swim as Yusra and had a more rebellious relationship with their father. 

Even though the audience sees their father describes her as a “headstrong leader while Yusra has discipline, strength, and perseverance," Sara's decision to go back to Lesbos and work with an organization that helps refugees cross over was unexpected. 

The audience did not get further insight into her decision-making other than the scene where she cuts her hair as a symbol of taking control of who she wants to be and what she chooses to do with her life moving forward.

Natalie and Manal, being sisters in real life, could be said to influence their ability to give an outstanding and sincere performance. Their acting supported the characters in a non-stereotypical manner, helping them come to life. Yusra won the first heat of the 100M Butterfly 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the Refugee Team rather than her country, Syria, which she dreamed represented bravery. 

To say “I have no country” but able to survive and swim for “everyone who died trying to find a better life” and for her family is remarkable. 

While the journey was filled with tension and captivating conflicts, it was also full of hope and passion. It is inspiring to see young women finally be recognized and visible after being thrown into exceptional circumstances. 

Sara tells Yusra, “You should be at the bottom of the Greek Sea. Or sleeping on the roadside of Hungaria or you should be dead in a hole in Dariyya,” yet they both rose above all the struggles. 

The movie leaves a strong impression as it also manages to leave you thinking - how many bodies did the ocean swallow?

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