The Swimmers is a tour-de-force in tension and resilience
he Swimmers is based on the true story of a Syrian refugee swimmer,YusraMardini, and her sister Sara Mardini.
The plot follows thetwo sisters, who are trying to chase their dreams in a war-torn Syria. In a manner, their father, Ezzat, is living his lost dream through them. We are introduced to the key characters in a suburb of Damascus in 2011, a scene of a communal pool where families are having a grand time. The sisters are timing their underwater breathing. Walking back home from there, to a surprise birthday party for Yusra, we meet the rest of the family, particularly their father, who is also their swimming coach.
Yusrawants to be an Olympic gold medallist;Sara is seen struggling between losing her interest in swimming competitions and finding her passion. Played by real-life sisters, Nathalie and Manal Issa, the on-screen chemistry of the two is on point in navigating range of sibling relationship.
Fast forward four years later, we see the sisters dance on a rooftop party while their cousin, Nizar deejays. The casual teenage fun turns sombre as they learn of the death of a mutual friend. Syria is now officially in the grasp of a brutal civil war, with soldiers everywhere. A run-in with soldiers on the bus becomes a nauseous act of molestation.
In these grim circumstances, the family tries to go on as best they can. However, with each passing day, it becomes clear that Yusra’s swimming goals are going up in flames with the country. A key turning point is a close encounter with death during a local swimming competition.
While all previous attempts at convincing their father by Sara to let the two of them escape to Germany, from where they can then apply for a family reunion plan for the rest of them, as Yusrais under 18, were strongly brushed aside; this close encounter makes him change his mind. He agrees to send them to Germany, with Nizar, as their guide and confidant, the two girls set out, across perilous seas, trusting shady traffickers, all the way to Berlin in the hope of a better future.
Ezzat borrows all the money he can to facilitate the trip. Sara, Yusra and Nizar leave their tearful family for a flight to Istanbul.
From here on,The Swimmersis a tour-de-force in tension and resilience. The movie succeeds in showcasing the plight of the men and women who put themselves in danger opting for the perilous journey through dangerous routes in search of a better life. In an effort to escape their oppressive circumstances, they find themselves staring down at death. Many don’t make it.
The movie succeeds in showcasing the plight of the men and women who put themselves in danger opting for the perilous journey through dangerous routes in search of a better life. In an effort to escape their oppressive circumstances, they find themselves staring down at death. Many don’t make it.
Even those who make it, do it at the expense of leaving behind everything they hold dear. For the Mardini sisters, and the group of other desperate refugees they become a part of, the dangerous odyssey means crossing the Aegean Sea in a patched inflatable boat. Without revealing any spoilers at one point we see Yusra, for practical reasons having to throw away her medals, a handful of things she was carrying with her from her past life. Barely surviving the sea crossing the group treks through hostile countries at the mercy of opportunist smugglers.
Finally, they make it to Germany, and we breathe a sigh of relief with the characters. Their fight is still far from over as they attempt to make a new life for themselves. Of course, that means Yusra going back to swimming and attempting to make it to the Olympics.
This is where the uplifting sports drama kicks in and we see her training in a refugee camp. In the process, she meets a coach from a local swimming club and talks her way into getting a slot with the trainer, Sven. No big reveals here, as expected he is impressed and takes on Yusra’s training.
A combination of PTSD and survivor’s guilt seeps in and tears intoYusra and Sara’s bond, which they are able to process with the strength of their sisterly ties.
Sally El-Hosaini, through their story, has done a great job showcasing the ongoing impact of trauma. Refugees, especially children, need a lot of help that goes beyond providing the bare minimum of their basic needs of food and shelter.
The Swimmers is a long movie.There are times when the audience can get a bit impatient and feel that the movie slips a bit. We enter suddenly into a very uplifting and trope-filled sports celebration as Yusra changes her decision of waiting for her chance to swim for Syria, and instead enters the Rio Olympics as part of the special refugees’ team.
Even though you already know the result of the race, you get excited and are rooting for Yusra’s win next to Sara and Sven.
For a film that spans 2 hours, 10 minutes, the end feels a bit rushed and leaves Sara’s life trajectory oversimplified. During the credits we learn that her activism has landed her facing yet another injustice.
Ultimately, this is a harrowing tale combined with Hollywood sports drama. While it feels at times a bit confused tonally, it still is a good piece of storytelling that is worth watching.
The writer is a communications, public relations and sustainability professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif