Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Swimmers: A harrowing journey from refugees to Rio Olympics

The Swimmers is based on the true story of Yusra and Sara Mardini (refugees from Syria) portrayed by real-life sisters Nethalie and Manal Issa. In September, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screenplay was co-written by director El Hosaini and Enola Holmes scribe Jack Thorne, who worked together for over four years to make the film.

The film producers were lined up in 2016 to capture the life story of professional swimmers (Yusra and Sara). However, they turned them down multiple times since they were still being prepared to be seen on television.

When cinematographer Christopher Ross BSC first met director Sally El Hosaini for the film The Swimmers, he was hooked. He says “ it is such an eclectic mix” — the film is a part family drama, part refugee exodus story, part sports film and part sibling rivalry (tale). It was a bit challenging for Ross to work with. He primarily focused on how refugees in the media are portrayed visually. Influenced by the work of photographers Nan Goldin and Mike Brodie, Ross decided he wanted a more intimate approach, using a handheld camera where possible. “I thought that a more interesting way of viewing the exodus of the refugees was to immerse ourselves in it.”

The film dramatises the story of two sisters trying to chase their dream- Yusra has big dreams to be an Olympic gold medalist but her swimming goes up in flames when the country comes under attack. After learning about the death of Sara’s third friend their father (Ali Sulaiman) decides to send them out to Germany in a bid to find salvation and refuge along with Nizar as their guide and confidant. They were forced to embark on a dangerous journey in a dingy to cross perilous oceans to safety.

For Sara, the antidote is partying but Yusra is more serious about her swimming. “Swimming is where I belong,” she says in one scene. Along their journey the two sisters argue, make mistakes and are too hard on themselves, but that’s part of what makes their story so compelling.

While crossing from Turkey to Lesbos, they jumped in the water and swam for over 3 hours, helping their crowded boat complete the journey. To save the boat, the people began throwing their processions overboard as the boat started sinking. There was a heartbreaking moment when Yusra had to drop all of her medals into the water.

During the film’s narrative of the refugees’ journey along the notorious Balkan route from Greece to Germany, the audience gains an understanding of the most harrowing aspects of the refugee crisis. It’s a risk every step of the way- paying a smuggler who might pocket the money and run. And there is another scene where they split into groups, they had to put their trust in their chances of meeting on the other side.

They also received support and assistance from the coach Sven Spannekrebs (Matthias Schweighofer), who trains Yusra at a Berlin swimming club for the IOC Refugee Olympics Team at the 2016 and 2020 Olympic games. Sara, on the other hand, switched gears and began volunteering in Greece to help refugees like herself make safe passage across the sea after leaving her swimming aspirations behind.

Shining a light on the horrifying plight facing thousands of refugees around the globe, the film is much more than just a sporting story. It is an intense and gripping film that moves well and is at times extremely well-paced. Through the camaraderie of the refugees, there are moments of despair as well as moments of hope and kindness.

Despite life’s twists and turns, achieving things sometimes occurs, yet in a way, one could not have imagined. “The Swimmers” is a reminder of human determination and the strength of the human spirit.

Fathima Nidha
Fathima Nidha
Fathima Nidha in an independent writer based in Kerala
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