As long as cinema has existed, there have been “based on true events” films. George Méliès’ Joan of Arc (Jean D’Arc), released in 1900, is noted as the first film to depict real life events and dramatise them for audiences. Cinema has come a long way since then, but we still continue to make films in the same vein to this very day. With the recent resurgence and popularity of such films, The Swimmers couldn’t have come at a better time. It is a proper crowd-pleaser, but one with real emotional levity that never loses sight on its true purpose, to highlight the battle that refugees must go through to find normalcy away from danger.
The Swimmers begins in 2011 as events escalate in Damascus and other cities at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Based on the true story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two young Syrian siblings, who decide to flee their worn-torn country after years of enduring constant threats to their lives. They seek a better life in Germany where they heard is the best place in the EU to settle down as refugees. However, the journey that they take is not easy at all, their experience is reflective of the hardships and struggles that millions fleeing war go through. But what makes Yusra and Sarah unique is that they are swimmers, who have trained all their lives to become professional one day. It is Yusra’s dream to go to the Olympics and compete for the Syrian national team.
Sally El Hosaini’s latest film is filled with unforgettable, tear-inducing and inspiring moments. The two sisters are faced with challenge after challenge, so naturally, the hardships they go through are among some of the film’s most striking moments. The first; bombs strike Damascus in the far distance as Sarah and Yusra dance to their favourite song in a blue-lit rooftop club. The contrast of normalcy and destruction on show is profound and powerful, one instantly realises that their lives will never be the same again. The second; midway across the Aegean Sea as their boat is sinking, Sarah and Yusra jump out of the boat and swim the rest of the way. Cinematographer Christopher Ross’ visual imagery here is arresting as the duo selflessly dive into the treacherous and dark sea to save their fellow passengers. Ross’ use of handheld shots destabilises the scene, whilst the low-key, yet high contrast lighting creates an atmosphere of purveying dread. It truly depicts the harshness of the stormy enviroment that they face in harrowing fashion.
The connection that the two sisters share is always there, despite their quarrels, and is the heart of the film. Real life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa are an amazing pair, but it’s Nathalie Issa’s performance as Yusra Mardini that truly stands out among the crowd. She really gives it her all, delivering a nuanced, emotional and magnetic performance that will connect with audiences. Both sisters have a bright future ahead of them given their incredible display of talent in The Swimmers.
The use of music in the soundtrack becomes an integral element of their relationship, and the blending of the diegetic and non-diegetic is a particularly inspired choice. From the very start, El Hosaini introduced the characters with such music and continues it as an underlying narrative link, she even ends the film with the same style of music. It can be perceived as a sign that their initial innocence isn’t lost, that they’re still the same sisters deep down despite having evolved as people. But, a few poorly-timed needle drops are jarring and abrupt the flow of the film at points. Despite some hiccups, the pacing is sharp, it does a fair job of showing the adversity that faces the sisters, along with Yusra’s non-stop drive to achieve her swimming dreams, before building up to the film’s climactic, and triumphant, finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That is testament to Iain Kitching’s editing, which pairs remarkably with Ross’ cinematography, especially in the sport-drama style scenes. There is a training montage that is quite the spectacular feat, it truly shows Yusra’s unrelenting drive to become the best she can, despite the odds.
The fact that Netflix is releasing the film is great, it opens the doors to hopefully a big range of viewers from all different places and generations. The Swimmers is an important watch, especially to those who never had their homes torn apart by war. El Hosaini shows great promise as an emerging director, steering the film and her tremendous cast with a deft, empathetic touch. The movie is a perfect blend of biopic and sports drama, almost seemlessly woven together without one noticing. Audiences will most definitely connect and be inspired by The Swimmers upon its Netflix release.
This review is from the 2022 Zurich Film Festival. Netflix will release The Swimmers in select theaters and on Netflix later this year.