Yusra Mardini made headlines in 2016 when she competed in the Rio Olympics for the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), and now filmmaker Sally El Hosaini is telling the story of how Mardini and her sister Sarah fled war-torn Syria for a new life in Germany in the movie The Swimmers (on Netflix Nov. 23).
“In Yusra and Sarah’s relationship and story, this isn't just about one hero, an underdog making it to the Olympics,” El Hosaini told Yahoo Canada about what compelled her to tell this story. “There's also the unsung hero in Sarah, that unsung hero in Sarah that is most powerful because when one is strong, the other’s weak.”
“I found their relationship so inspiring, how they supported each other and how they helped each other get through those really difficult times. But more than anything, I love their sense of humour and who they are as people.”
The Swimmers (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) begins with Yusra and Sarah, played by sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa, living in the suburb of Darayya in Damascus and being coached in competitive swimming by their father Ezzat (Ali Suliman). Yusra has a specific dream to compete in the Olympics one day, but by 2015, the civil war in Syria made her goal seem impossible. The two girls convinced their father to let them take the journey for asylum in Germany, which he eventually agrees to after bombs explode at Yusra’s swimming competition.
Yusra and Sarah are joined by their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), with €10,000, and start off on this journey, from a flight to Istanbul to the coast near Ayvalik in Turkey, swimming to Lesbos, eventually ending up in Macedonia, Hungary and then Germany.
'We were still trying to cling to this normality'
While Sally El Hosaini creates some heartbreaking moments in the film, based on real-life events, what makes The Swimmers particularly unique is the way it balances the hardship of the civil war with the humanity of its characters and the humorous, vibrant personalities of Yusra and Sarah.
“To show the light in the darkness, to really show the capacity of the human spirit to survive in the toughest of circumstances, nothing's ever black and white,” El Hosaini said. “Comedy’s connected to tragedy, pain and laughter are so connected, the hardest times in my own life, I've got through with humour.”
Yusra Mardini highlighted that she particularly enjoyed watching the scenes of her going clubbing and dancing with her sister.
“It was really, really incredible to watch the movie for the first time with my sister, we both were crying, laughing and just enjoying those moments, being reminded of our relationship and how it is,” Mardini told Yahoo Canada. “One of my favourite scenes is going to the club because it shows something that is not shown very often, to be honest, in the news when they show Syria, when they show the Arabic world, areas that are affected are…always grey or destroyed.”
So to me, it was very, very important to show people that yes, there's struggle, yes there is war, but we were still trying to cling to this normality, to being teenagers, to just having a normal life as well. Unfortunately, we were dancing while there were bomb attacks and so on, but that was the sad reality in Syria. Life goes on and that was very important to show in the movie, that there are…people trying to have a normal life, to be honest.Yusra Mardini
To make things as authentic as possible, El Hosaini even asked for Mardini’s input for the music in the film.
“I love the music, I love Sia,” Mardini said. “Sally asked us about our playlists and she asked me, what is the most inspiring music to you? And I told her Sia immediately and in my playlist, there was 'Titanium' and 'Unstoppable,' and they both are in the movie.”
'I learned that refugees are ordinary people'
When Yusra and Sarah Mardini make it to Germany in The Swimmers they meet coach Sven, played by Matthias Schweighöfer, who Yusra persuades to let her train with him, after promising to be impressive in the pool. He was also instrumental in ensuring Yusra and Sarah had training clothes and equipment, and secured a bunk room for them outside of the refugee shelter.
“The first time I met him at the pool, he showed me around where the sisters lived and he showed me videos on his phone,” Schweighöfer said. “They went crazy on these videos, and they were dancing and they were training.”
“I asked Sven,...'What do you want me to do? What's your wish?’ And he said, Matthias don't make me look bad and let's help Yusra and Sarah tell the story, and make this film happen.”
For the actor, Schweighöfer revealed that through the process of working on The Swimmers he learned more about the humanity of refugees and the refugee experience, through the Mardini sisters.
“I learned that refugees are ordinary people and I think Yusra is so inspiring, because she's a very strong, powerful woman with a big dream, big hopes and dreams,” Schweighöfer said. “It's always nice to be with her or surrounded by her because she's so strong and so funny and she has a great sense of humour.”