The Swimmers, from director Sally El Hosaini, is an uplifting tale of two Syrian sisters who set on a journey to Germany with hopes of becoming Olympic swimmers.
Sally El Hosaini’s new film, The Swimmers, is based on the real Mardini sisters. Yusra and Sara, promising swimmers, trained by their father, fled Syria to Germany. They hoped they could bring their family over, as Yusra was still a minor at the time.
Their journey, impressively dramatised here by El Hosaini, was perilous; as they crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece, their tiny boat suddenly started sinking after the motor stopped. Sara and Yusra jumped into the water and pulled the ship full of people for nearly four hours before reaching the shores of Greece.
In many ways, El Hosaini’s film is like a modern war film. We’re used to old-fashioned war films, like Netflix’s superb All Quiet on the Western Front, but The Swimmers reflects a new type of war film. War isn’t something that you go to; it’s already here. It’s in your neighbourhood, just around the corner.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Swimmers is how mundane it can be. It’s dramatic, exciting even, but El Hosaini observes how life must go on, even when the neighbourhood is getting bombed. Yusra will still need to attend swimming practice, and her family must still eat dinner together, regardless of the misery just outside. While it’s often portrayed that everything comes to a standstill in war, The Swimmers shows that life continues even in the middle of it.
While The Swimmers does occasionally dip into misery porn, it’s mostly an uplifting story that focuses on the dynamic between the sisters through their ordeal. El Hosaini also reframes the refugee narrative here; these aren’t victims of their circumstances but survivors taking charge of their lives as they seek a safer future.
At 134 minutes, The Swimmers is way too long. The journey Yusra and Sara complete, from Syria to Germany, is plenty for one film alone but the most life-affirming aspect of the film only comes to play after the sisters arrive in Berlin.
Yusra bravely marches to a local swimming club and demands to be trained. Her trainer, Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), is impressed by Yusra’s determination and eventually guides her to the 2016 Rio Olympics. It’s all very inspirational, but from a dramatic narrative point of view, The Swimmers seems like two distinct, individual films slammed together.
El Hosaini directs the film with urgency. The whole sequence of the sisters at sea is as thrilling as it is devastating. We’ve seen numerous images of these little dinghies capsized, bodies strewn on shores, but thankfully El Hosaini doesn’t seek to replicate those images. The Swimmers isn’t a film about death but about survival and thriving despite your circumstances.
The real-life sisters portraying Yusra and Sara are both very impressive. While the script, co-written by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne, tends to lean on the melodrama a little too much, their playful chemistry and commitment keep the film from succumbing to it. The Swimmers is an ambitious, if flawed, movie about resilience and sisterhood.
The Swimmers is in cinemas on November 11.