Review : Toronto International Film Festival Opener ‘The Swimmers’ Showcases an Astounding Story of Survival and Perseverance

Review : Toronto International Film Festival Opener ‘The Swimmers’ Showcases an Astounding Story of Survival and Perseverance

Training for the Olympics is no small feat, and even the most committed and talented athletes face stiff competition and daunting odds to be selected. Anyone who makes it to the games deserves commendation, particularly those who have had to endure unimaginable circumstances that made the idea of that endgame seem all but impossible. One such story that is absolutely worthy of a cinematic retelling is that of Yusra and Sara Mardini, sisters who fled Syria for a better life in Europe without losing sight of their lifelong goal to put their swimming abilities to spectacular use at the Olympics.

The Swimmers first finds its protagonists training hard under the guidance of their father (Ali Suliman), who exhibits a fervor similar to that of Richard Williams that his daughters can accomplish everything specifically because he has always prepared them for it. The war in Syria has worsened enough by 2015 that the family decides the sisters must leave for Europe after a meet is disrupted by frighteningly close violence. With their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), they fly to Turkey, where they begin an arduous journey from country to country, dealing with various unreliable smugglers, intent on making it to Germany where they can apply for family reunification and bring their parents and younger sister to join them.

The Swimmers
(L to R) Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, Ahmed Malek as Nizar in The Swimmers. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2022

There is an extremely poignant image near the start of the film of Yusra and Sara singing at a party as the music blasts loudly, drowning out the explosion sounds that accompany the bombs falling in the distance. The lives they lead are normal until they are not, and it’s only possible to pretend that they can continue to exist without acknowledging and accommodating for their circumstances for so long. Once they have made the decision to leave, there is no turning back, even if every obstacle makes that seem like the easier option since traveling in treacherous conditions could have disastrous and deadly implications.

This is the remarkable true story of the real Mardini sisters, who in this film are played by another set of actual sisters, Nathalie and Manal Issa. The pair are phenomenal as Yusra and Sara, embodying the passion they feel for their home country as they grapple with the necessity of how they must continue to survive. Director Sally El Hosaini powerfully frames their unbelievable tale of survival, including a harrowing passage by sea that required the sisters to swim next to their failing raft to ensure that others traveling with them would not perish.

The Swimmers
(L to R) Elmi Rashid Elmi as Bilal, Ahmed Malek as Nizar, Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Nahel Tzegai as Shada, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, James Krishna Floyd as Emad in The Swimmers. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2022

There is plenty of inspiration to be found in this film, especially as conveyed by the actors portraying the different people Yusra and Sara meet along the way. Among the standouts is Matthias Schweighöfer as German swim coach Sven Spannekrebs, whose initially incredulous response to Yusra’s demand that he consider training them quickly turns to a position of warm support for their potential. The friendship that forms between them is particularly endearing, and it follows other close bonds that are created during the process of Yusra and Sara making their way to Europe, trading in their comfortable if deeply unstable lives for close quarters and no knowledge of how long the journey will take and what it will require.

There is an additional dimension of The Swimmers that makes it all the more effective. Yusra and Sara meet refugees from many other countries along the way, and once they do arrive in Europe, they are angrily dismissed by a cafe waiter when they beg for water simply because they are refugees. It would be difficult to watch this film and not be moved by the case for humanitarian refugee assistance programs, given the untenable nature of the home lives of so many in different countries and their lack of any real alternative options. The Swimmers understandably and appropriately pays tribute to all refugees in its ultimately uplifting depiction of one truly magnificent story.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Following its world premiere as a Gala Presentation at the Tribeca International Film Festival, The Swimmers will stream on Netflix beginning November 23rd.

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