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‘The Swimmers’ Adapts the Mardini Sisters’ Story Into a Feel-Good Film

But not all heroes’ tales fit into a neat narrative arc

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‘The Swimmers’ Adapts the Mardini Sisters’ Story Into a Feel-Good Film
Yusra Mardini competes in the Women’s 100m butterfly heats at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 6, 2016. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

“Welcome aboard this flight to Istanbul,” sounds an otherwise ordinary airplane announcement, as the camera zooms in on Yusra and Sara Mardini, played by Nathalie and Manal Issa in “The Swimmers,” a Netflix adaptation of the real-life story of the Olympic athlete Yusra and her sister. The two have recently left their home in Damascus, Syria, and though they are able to take a plane to Istanbul, once they are in Turkey, ordinary travel stops. From there, they will rely on overcrowded boats and dodgy smugglers to reach their final destination: Germany.

“We would like to remind you that the life jackets are the property of this airline and any attempt to take them will be considered theft,” the announcement continues, alluding to the open secret that most of the Syrians aboard the plane holding tourist visas were not tourists at all.

“The airline would now like to remind you that you are homeless refugees,” says their cousin Nizar, played by the Egyptian actor Ahmed Malik, with a smirk. It is one of the many darkly funny yet poignant moments that pepper the film.

Like most families, the Mardinis never had any intention of leaving Syria or splitting from one another. Yet, as the war inched closer to their lives — first experienced through YouTube videos of demonstrations in Daraa in 2011, then with checkpoints on their way home, up to bombs dropping in the distance in 2015 — it became clear the only way they were going to survive was to leave.

“Don’t think Germany — think Berlin,” Sara tells Nizar in one of the first scenes, where she is trying to persuade him to join them. It reminds me of living between Beirut and Istanbul in 2015, when dozens of my own friends were planning a similar trip, forever focusing on the destination rather than the life-threatening journey to get there.

“You could get a European audience for your mixes,” she continues, trying to appeal to him as an aspiring DJ. “Think clubs! Think Berghain!”

Meanwhile, Yusra is fixated on swimming in the Olympics — her father has been training both sisters since they were children, and she dreams of someday swimming for Syria. Even when the violence draws near, she obsesses over making sure she is well-rested to be in the pool to start training at 6 a.m.

“If I can get to Europe, I can keep training,” she says, begging her father to let them go.

In order to get to Berghain, the Olympics, or even any country where they can safely evacuate the rest of their family out of Syria, they must first get smuggled to Greece, and then follow the route taken by millions of others to reach Germany and apply for asylum. At 17, Yusra is the family’s hope. Not only does her father have his sights set on the Olympics for his younger, more disciplined daughter, but she is under 18, meaning that, if she can reach Germany, she will be able to apply for family reunification to sponsor the rest of the family to arrive safely by plane.

Nizar is tasked with protecting his two cousins during the trip, even as it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are more than capable of taking care of themselves. “All we have to do is get on a boat,” he says, even though their father has specifically requested that they avoid the dangerous sea journey in favor of the safer, albeit more expensive one across the land border to Bulgaria. “Next, we’re in Greece.”

It is a simple enough proposition. The distance across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the nearest Greek island is only about 6 miles, and more than 1 million people have taken it successfully. Yet, halfway across the sea, the overcrowded rubber dinghy begins to take on water, just as the engine starts to falter. Nizar tries to use his one year of studying engineering to restart the motor, to no avail. Instead, Sara and Yusra jump into the water, relieving the boat of their weight and tying themselves to it with rope to pull it to safety. Swimming was no longer recreational laps timed for competition and assessed for technique — it was the only way they were going to survive.

“It was so emotional,” recalls Manal, the Lebanese actor who plays Sara, sharing that they were 25 people on a single dinghy, shooting for six hours. “Some of us got sick, and others had to pee,” she laughs. “We all grew really close to one another.”

True to the film’s authenticity, the scene was shot in the Aegean off the Turkish coast. Many of the extras were refugees themselves who had once taken the same journey.

“I will never truly know what people who have truly taken that journey have gone through,” adds Nathalie, who plays Yusra and is Manal’s real-life younger sister. While she prepared for the role by speaking to Yusra and many other refugees who had taken the same journey, she was careful not to watch too many documentaries of similar voyages, in order to better create the scene in the moment.

“But that moment opened my eyes.”

Ironically, neither Manal nor Nathalie knew how to swim when they were offered the roles — and initially rejected the offer. “Water was always a nightmare for me,” Nathalie tells New Lines. “Even the smell of chlorine would give me anxiety.”

But while the original casting call requested “strong swimmers” who could act in both English and Arabic, the Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El Hosaini was struck by the Issa sisters’ bond, and then — in a particularly meta moment — the real-life Sven Spannekrebs, who coached Yusra ahead of the Olympics, trained both women with a strict exercise and nutrition routine and turned them both into swimmers.

“I spent so many hours in the pool,” Nathalie remembers. “At one point, my fear of the water became a love for it, and it really helped me understand Yusra — not just as a person but as a swimmer. I thought about what it means to succeed and what it means to be the best. Why does she want to win this race?”

As the film follows the journey from Greece, through the notorious Balkan route and onward to Germany, the audience has a front-row seat to the most harrowing aspects of the refugee route. Every step of the way requires taking a chance — paying a smuggler who might pocket the money and run, or being split up and putting trust in fate that they would meet on the other side of a border.

At the same time, the film expertly balances these nail-biting moments with lighter, even comedic moments. “You look like a popstar,” Nizar tells his friend Emad when they reunite, after losing touch when they went their separate ways at the Austria-Hungary border. “You look like a refugee,” Emad jokes back.

One curious aspect of the film is the mixture of Arabic and English dialogue. While this made sense in Germany, or in the dinghy when Yusra and Sara were befriending refugees from a range of different countries, I wondered how often two Syrian sisters would speak English to one another at home, even if they spoke it fluently.

“I really pushed for us to be speaking as much Arabic as possible,” Manal tells me when I asked her how it felt to act in both languages. At first, she was even instructed to speak English with an American accent — a request she chalks up to the director’s desire for the film to be relatable to Netflix’s audience. “I wanted to speak as the sisters would really speak.”

While at times the movie straddles the line between a film about two Syrian women and a film made for an Anglophone audience, at its best, it transcends language to explore the relationship between the two sisters, their similarities and their differences. Whereas Yusra is laser-focused on her training — whether matter-of-factly announcing she has to be in the pool at 6 a.m. as bombs drop in the distance or waltzing up to Sven at a recreation center in Berlin and announcing she intends to swim for his club in order to train for the Olympics — Sara is skeptical of swimming and her sister’s devotion to it; a dream that was always her father’s but never her own.

“Swimming? Is that all you care about?” she asks her after Yusra is devastated to learn she will not be able to swim for Syria but can swim for a refugee team instead. Meanwhile, Sara is shouldering the burden of learning that their family will not be able to join them in Germany as she had hoped, and will instead have to take the same dangerous journey she did.

So far, the film has met with mixed reviews. While many have praised both Manal and Nathalie for bringing the heroic sisters’ journey to life, others have criticized the film as a “Hollywoodification” of the refugee crisis that relies too much on a soaring soundtrack and “feel-good” moments typical of a sports movie. A Guardian reviewer critiqued the film as “overly dramatic,” but that is exactly what the journey of so many refugees often is. In a world where, as Sara so aptly puts it in one of the first scenes, European countries “aren’t exactly handing out visas to Syrians,” refugees from around the world are forced to take terrifying, often dangerous journeys across the sea, facing not only the elements but also the challenges of being in a country that is not their own, and is notoriously inhospitable. But while Hosaini brings all of these elements to life — racist graffiti, snide remarks from other Olympians toward the “refugee team,” the devastating bureaucracy that separates families for years at a time — it rarely feels heavy.

“I love that the film shows us as we really are,” Manal laughs when I ask her what it was like to balance the light and the dark in a way that breaks some of these stereotypes, particularly those around Arab women.

“We are very open, and we do not see this enough in cinema,” she continues. “It is always very dramatic, and yes, we live through dramatic events. But we are also loud and dance and play music, and it is nice to show this reality.”

One of the film’s enormous strengths is it does not portray refugees as huddled masses, but ordinary people — perhaps even people who once partied on rooftops or swam in indoor swimming pools — who then had to abort their plans to pursue studies or start families to trek through the rugged terrain of Iran and Afghanistan, cook over campfires along the Turkish coast and then steer an overcrowded rubber dingy toward the Greek horizon in hopes of reaching safety. While it does not explicitly state that one’s fate is often contingent on the passport one holds, it plays with this idea when the girls are searching for a shower to wash the salt out of their hair. While there is a long line for the refugee showers, Sara spots a shower on a private beach, catering to tourists.

“We have to look European,” she says, tying her T-shirt into a crop top. “And rich,” Yusra laughs as they sashay onto the beach, grabbing fresh towels with performed entitlement. What follows is a montage of the two sisters and new friend Emad cosplaying privilege, as they watch actual rich Europeans lazing about the sea in inflatable dinghies for leisure, splashing in the shallows of the sea whose depth nearly killed them the night before. “Those people have no idea that people are dying in that sea,” Sara remarks, in pitch-perfect commentary on an island whose shores are simultaneously a recreational holiday for rich Europeans and a life-jacket-littered, unmarked grave for thousands of others.

“There are so many strange ideas in Western cinema about the Middle East,” adds Nathalie, sharing her sister’s delight in taking part in breaking so many of these stereotypes.

If anything, the film is less dramatic than it should be. While it follows the story up until Sara surprises Yusra in Rio de Janeiro to cheer her on at the Olympics just before she plans to return to the island of Lesbos to volunteer with organizations helping refugees, it does not show the journey of the real-life Sara, who really did go back to Lesbos to become a volunteer lifeguard, only to be arrested and charged with human trafficking, potentially facing 25 years in jail.

“Sara is an amazing person,” says Manal, who sees herself in Sara’s character. “But being accused of a crime that one did not commit is enough to drive someone crazy,” she adds. “If the charges are dropped, Sara is the type of person who will perform miracles.”

What would it look like if Yusra’s and Sara’s stories could be adapted into a Netflix series instead of a movie? The first episodes could follow Yusra’s journey to the Olympics, while the remaining episodes explored Sara’s journey as she went back to the island where she was once a refugee herself. In the same way the film draws attention to the journey that more than 1 million people have taken to seek refuge in Europe, a series that dug further into the contrast between the two swimmers could shine a light on the way humanitarian workers are criminalized as part of a wider crackdown on refugees and mobilize global solidarity to drop the charges against Sara.

While the film alludes to this at the very end, Manal does not feel Netflix is doing enough to raise awareness about the real Sara, whose trial is set to begin on Jan. 10.

“I don’t have much power; you don’t have much power,” she tells me during our interview, when I mention that I hoped to write my review in a way that drew attention to Sara’s case. Recently, Manal spoke extensively to Middle East Eye about her poor experience working with Netflix, including, but not limited to, a pay discrepancy between European actors and actors from the Middle East as well as a lack of Syrian actors in the cast. After the article was published, multiple people who worked on the film commented on Manal’s “mental state,” which seemed more like a response to her speaking out than concern for her well-being.

“Netflix has power,” she continued. “They could be doing more to raise awareness.”

There is more the film could have done to explore the complexities of being a refugee, as well. While Yusra’s story of jumping into the sea to push a boat to safety and going on to swim in the Olympics is extraordinarily compelling, it is also unusual. Most refugees are far less like Yusra than Nizar, who, after his initial elation at reaching Germany with his cousins, realizes there is nothing waiting for him there besides papers and bureaucracy. “I can’t do anything here, and I am not allowed to work until I get my papers,” he tells them, as they try to share a pizza with him after their swimming practice. “I wish I never agreed with you to come here. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who actually makes it, there is nothing here to come for. Nothing.”

For Manal, it is exactly these kinds of moments that would deepen the story and make it more relatable — though it might then lose the “feel-good” appeal that makes it popular.

“Many of my favorite scenes ended up getting cut,” Manal tells me, sharing that the first cut of the 134-minute film was four hours long and included more scenes of Sara breaking down under the weight of worrying about her family and processing her own trauma. In others, she looked out over the water, no longer able to bring herself to swim. As Yusra trains for the Olympics and realizes her dream, Sara is left with nothing.

Pieces of this emotionality do come through in the final cut — a series of scenes of Sara drinking alone in bars, sharply contrasted with Yusra’s athletic discipline, fashioning belts into resistance bands hung from bunk beds in a refugee accommodation center and doing crunches in a tiny space, surrounded by screaming children. Yet most of the latter half of the film focuses on Yusra’s journey to the Olympics, rather than Sara facing what it means to abandon that dream and exploring the way the scattered pieces of a life uprooted do not always fall into place once someone reaches safety.

“Maybe it would have been better for Sara if she had never left Syria,” Manal continues, pointing out that someone like Yusra, who picks up her goals almost immediately and starts thriving in a new place so soon after being displaced, is often the exception, rather than the rule.

“I think in a film that is about refugees, that is about leaving your country, we have to see that,” she continues. “I would have wanted to explore more of what is going on with Nizar, how he is really not OK in Germany.”

It is often impossible to fit something so complex into a single narrative arc, even in a film as textured and multifaceted as “The Swimmers.” While perhaps the film should be marketed as a film about two sisters who happen to be refugees, rather than trying to encompass the story of every refugee, Yusra’s story — as triumphant, and perhaps, unrealistic as it is — is compelling cinema, made even more extraordinary by the fact it is inspired by real events.

“Yusra’s story is the film,” Manal agrees. “It is cinema, a nice story, and it has a logical ending.” Now that the real-life Yusra has competed in two Olympics and stopped training, Manal hopes that people who liked the film will get involved by supporting Sara’s case.

“Sara’s story hasn’t ended yet,” she continues. “Yusra’s story is cinema — Sara’s story is life.”

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