Media attention to war-torn countries follows a pattern. At first outrage and the pursuit of justice drive a twenty-four-hour cycle of coverage. Journalistic principle promises to keep it going until the war subsides, yet inevitably it recedes long before. Only occasionally do humanitarian tragedies prompt reminders of the ongoing hardship. The body of a three-year-old Syrian boy in a red T-shirt washing up face down on a Turkish beach in September 2015 was one such moment of rupture. His name was Alan Kurdi. Attention to him lasted about a week.
The earthquake that killed more than 7,000 people and displaced another 500,000 in Syria alone this February is another. It is difficult to imagine that the civil war in Syria is still ongoing, and that Bashar al-Assad remains president of the republic, as fragmented as that republic may be. Electricity and clean water are still being rationed, and the threat that war will spill over into peaceful regions is constant. Close to seven million people are displaced within the country, where territories are continually shifting on a map that includes at least half a dozen competing forces.
Twelve years after revolutions toppled dictators in every other Middle Eastern state where they erupted, Arab leaders simultaneously regard the plight of the Syrian people with pity and use the open-ended conflict to warn their populations what renewed public protests could bring. In Egypt, despite runaway inflation and an atmosphere of severe political repression, the government continually reminds its citizens of their good fortune that “Egypt is not Syria.” An estimated 146,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Egypt (entire neighborhoods in Cairo are made up of Syrian refugees), and over five million more are living in bordering states. Another 6.8 million are displaced within their own country’s borders.
In 2015, against this backdrop of war and displacement, two sisters from the town of Darayya in Damascus—the site of one of the Assad regime’s most horrific massacres in 2012—were training under their father’s tutelage to be Olympic-level swimmers. Amid the threat of persistent shelling, they decided to flee their homeland for Germany, leaving behind their father, mother, younger sister, a beloved pet cat, and lifelong friends. Sara Mardini was twenty; Yusra was seventeen. Along with two cousins, who offered to accompany them, they planned to fly to Turkey and make the rest of the trip by land—on foot and smuggled in the backs of cargo trucks—to arrive in Germany before Yusra turned eighteen. As a minor she could then claim family reunification, bringing her parents and younger sister to join her legally.
The treacherous journey takes twenty-five days, during which the sisters and their cousins are convinced by smugglers to make part of the trip by boat. It involves dodging border patrols, being separated, almost raped, and facing corrupt smugglers on both land and sea. For the sea leg, twenty asylum-seekers have unknowingly paid the same smuggler, not realizing how many people will be on board with them. Nor do they know until they are waiting on the shore that their boat is an inflatable raft with an attached motor, built for a capacity of six or seven people and already extensively patched up.
Not long into the voyage, the motor breaks down and the raft starts to sink under the weight of the passengers. After all attempts to lighten the load fail (water is scooped out, belongings are thrown overboard), Sara and Yusra fling themselves into the Aegean Sea. For the next three-plus hours they swim, battling strong currents and frigid night waves, ingesting and spitting out the choking salt water. It seems unthinkable that the raft, or the sisters, will make it across the sea alive. But they do all wash up on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, and eventually they make it to Berlin. That they survived is just the beginning of what has made their story coveted for film adaptation.
The Swimmers, directed by the Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Sally El Hosaini, doesn’t linger long on the usual tropes of retold refugee narratives, which tend to emphasize the struggle of building a new life in the country of arrival: the limbo of Refugee Status Determination (RSD), the quagmire of settlement paperwork, and the eventual doldrums that “persons of concern” inhabit as only partially-recognized legal entities. Instead El Hosaini focuses on the sisters’ continuing pursuit of their Olympian dream. In Berlin, Sara and Yusra (played by the real-life Lebanese sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa) stride into the local swimming center and refuse to leave until the head coach, Sven, times them in the pool. Their singular talent expedites them through the bureaucracy: the coach settles them into a modern dormitory on an athletic club campus, where they can rest, eat well, and train. In the film they have a single, fictionalized male chaperone, a cousin named Nizar (played by the Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek). He remains in the bunker-like refugee camp, sharing a sleeping cubicle with five others, waiting for temporary settlement status to allow him to work.
The sisters are inseparable in both training and life, but they have notably different emotional responses to their exile. When the family resettlement doesn’t pan out as they had hoped (the processing officer notes that Yusra turns eighteen in just a few months, whereas the application requires a six-month window), Yusra trains harder as her means of coping, resolving to swim “for refugees everywhere.” Sara, on the other hand, drops out of training completely. Anguished by the ordeal of the journey from Syria, she decides to throw herself into refugee resettlement work instead. Nizar, having performed his duty as his cousins’ male chaperone, recedes from the story as he waits to be legalized. He battles melancholy and a sense of futility: “There’s nothing here to come for, nothing, except waiting and paperwork. Unless you are the Mardini sisters.” The trio’s perfect union is ripped apart.
And yet The Swimmers is fundamentally a feel-good film. Yusra competes at both the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, placing first in the hundred-meter heat in Rio and third in Tokyo. It’s the classic underdog-to-stardom sports tale, even as the crux of the film is everything that has been left unsaid. The very premise of The Swimmers—which illuminates both the vast talent that refugees bring with them and the despair of people stuck, like Nizar, in legal suspension—discredits the common western stereotypes of Arab refugees in Europe: either ultra-orthodox terror-inclined Muslims, or unscrupulous men and oppressed women uninterested in assimilating to their host countries and cultures. This becomes the film’s lasting message: the trio and their companions in the raft, like millions of others, would never have chosen to leave had it not been for the constricting war.
The Swimmers joins an expanding canon of artistic work about the experiences of North African, Iraqi, and Afghani refugees in France and Syrians in Lebanon and Europe. Among the standouts are Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated feature Capernaum (2018), which takes a gritty micro-view of the refugee crisis in a makeshift slum-cum-camp in Beirut. The Lebanese director’s cinema verité approach involved using actual refugees as actors and conducting many months of research and interviews. On the stage, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s 2017 play The Jungle did something similar, recreating a snapshot of life in a camp in Calais, France. Both productions focused on the minutiae of the lives of individuals caught in legal and personal purgatories with no endpoint or respite.
By virtue of its source material alone, The Swimmers perhaps cannot help being melodramatic. Still, one wonders if a production of this kind needed such heightened, theatric, Life of Pi–like effects: underwater shots of the sisters swallowed by waves; a birds-eye view that renders them dots in the vicious expanse of sea; close-ups of missiles blasting into their training pool in Darayya; Yusra in slow-motion wading to escape. Was there a way to evoke these experiences, the terror of them, without such Hollywood bravado? El Hosaini has said that she wanted to represent the characters’ inner lives by bringing the camera into the scene—the cameraman is literally in the raft—instead of mimicking images familiar from newscasts: “I really wanted this film to be a vehicle for empathy.”
The effect is emotionally gripping (the film does provoke tears), but the inner lives and anguish, the ongoing sorrow at losing a homeland, are somehow overlooked. The last scene follows Yusra and Sara frolicking into the surf in Rio after Yusra’s win. Nizar becomes a footnote in what one carries from the film, his story adrift like millions of others. To some extent, so does Sara. In real life, the elder sister returned to Lesbos as a volunteer for the Greek NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), where for two years she provided the aid that she had once received: swimming out to help refugees in their final stretch to shore and then translating, handing out water and blankets, pointing tired travelers to clothes, showers, and places to sleep. In interviews she said she abandoned her Olympic career because of “physical and emotional pain.”
Sara was detained for her work on August 21, 2018, as she waited to board a plane from Lesbos back to Berlin. She was held in prison for 107 days before being released on €5,000 bail. Along with twenty-three other humanitarian workers she was accused of human trafficking, espionage, belonging to a criminal organization, and money laundering—charges that carry a penalty of up to twenty-five years in prison. European Parliamentarians raised an outcry against her criminalization, but the trial proceeded, at times without her presence (she was banned from returning to Greece), until, in January, a sympathetic judge dismissed the charges as baseless.
None of this made it into the film, even though the pandemic, which interrupted production, might have given El Hosaini and her cowriter Jack Thorne time to work Sara’s story into the script. It may be prudent that they didn’t: the film, with its heightened special effects and happy ending, has a motive other than rendering the grim routine of refugees struggling to find meaning in a no-man’s-land. That El Hosaini grew up in Cairo perhaps informed those choices: she tacitly rails against common American and European notions of Arab and Levantine identity. She captures the complexity of the sisters as liberal young women who are deeply impacted by the war, yet still party and drink; who rebel in some ways even as they depend on family consensus, which they value and uphold, to decide the course of their lives.
In an early set of juxtaposed scenes before the sisters leave Syria, their father talks with pride at a family birthday celebration about his daughters’ strength and perseverance and their future as Olympians. We then cut directly to a montage of the sisters at a rave, driving with girlfriends, mourning a friend killed in the war, stumbling home drunk. Later, as the family gathers around their dining table in the darkness of a power outage, the sisters tell their father they intend to leave Syria. This is their own plan, hatched with much thought and research, and they have ready answers to all his questions. At first he resists the idea. Then several missiles land at the local sporting club and he submits, promising to support them and facilitate their passage. But a male escort is a precondition. The sisters are headstrong—a characterization that cuts against the grain of western cinema’s standard portrayal of Middle Eastern women.
The bleakness of the film is also punctured with humorous moments quarried from the director’s experiences of being Arab in largely white and European settings. In one of its best scenes, the sisters and a friend decide to try to enter a private beach on Lesbos—the type that local residents and tourists both frequent. “We need to look European,” they say, “and rich,” as they knot their T-shirts to expose their midriffs, unbutton their friend’s shirt, and re-coif his hair. One of them puts a belt-bag conspicuously and guardedly on her chest: “this way they will see that I have a lot of money.” They strut in, a dance in their step, a “ciao” to the towel-attendee, carefree, confident, happy. In the end the film is about just that, the resilience of the human spirit. But in a setting where art and politics are inseparable, the question still lingers of how to make a film that captures the highs of the Olympic achievement without leaving the rest of the story behind.