The Swimmers Review: Sally El Hosaini Tells Remarkable True Story With Vibrance & Flair [TIFF]

Based on the remarkable true story of Syrian sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini, "The Swimmers" is a stylish feature film that packs an emotional punch. Directed and co-written by Sally El Hosaini (best known for "My Brother the Devil"), the Netflix movie kicked off the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival — and set the tone for what's sure to be exciting week. This larger-than life movie is a crowd-pleaser. 

Alternating between exuberant and exhilarating, heart-warming and horrific, "The Swimmers" is an ambitious picture that tells an almost unbelievable tale of struggle, perseverance, and triumph. Life in Syria changed very drastically in 2011; the film shows sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini (played by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa) enjoying a happy, carefree life when the rumblings of civil war first appeared. Four years later, the family's life has been turned upside-down, thanks to the violence overtaking the nation.  

"The Swimmers" is drenched (excuse the pun) in feeling. From the opening scenes of happy family life, to the heart-stopping, seemingly endless suspense of the sister's journey out of Syria, to the overwhelming, aching pain of trauma that that lingers even after the girls have reached relative safety: Being a refugee is traumatic. These people aren't fleeing a country as much fleeing almost certain death — they aren't going to Germany because they want to, but because they have to. Leaving is heartbreaking on its own, without the indignity and humiliation that follows: We see people — smart, kind, funny, charming, loving human beings — treated like cattle, shuffled from one dangerous, claustrophobic vessel to the next. The biggest kindness anyone shows them is in Germany, where refugees are bused to a large indoor refugee camp. They are housed in essentially cubicles shared between four people. It's cramped, it's loud, and it's vast. A sea of white walls, reflecting the vast number of displaced human beings. 

A remarkable true story

Director Sally El Hosaini knows how to create unforgettable moments. There are several scenes in "The Swimmers" that are trully visually stunning. In one shot, Yusra and Sarah are dancing on a rooftop under blue club lights while the skyline behind them erupts in streaming missiles and fiery blasts. The visual contrast is both literal, the blue in the foreground against orange flames in the far distance, and figurative, the joyous partying of two girls against a backdrop of horrific violence. It's a great image that communicates the reality of the situation. These are teen girls trying to have a good time, and years of violence has desensitized them to death and destruction — at least, in the moment. Their friends are dying, their home ravaged by bombs and gunfire, and their futures, erased.  

Hosaini creates many memorable images in "The Swimmers" that convey the severity of the situation in the Middle East. A bomb violently interrupting moments of excitement and joy. Graffiti displaying large, racist messages in areas where refugees sit displaced, unwanted, with no where to go. On the Greek shoreline of Lesbos, the camera captures a smattering of abandoned lifejackets, only to pan out and reveal a mind-melting sea of them littering the shore. It's a great visual reminder of the scope at play here: Literally millions of people have fled just Syria alone since the beginning of its civil war. And for all of those who arrived safely, there are certainly those who died at sea. 

Hosaini has a knack for creating mood. Audiences get a strong sense of the sisters' relationships, and we experience their highs and lows alongside them. The ordeal the young women and their fellow travelers go through is awful and tense, and the entire journey is steeped in anxiety. It's a thoroughly evocative film that is unapologetically sentimental at times, but also lived in, gritty, and honest. "The Swimmers" is bold. At times, however, it is simply too much. 

Real life is complicated and messy

While "The Swimmers" is certainly entertaining, telling a poignant, unbelievable true story, it unfortunately goes on for far too long. A half hour could be comfortably cut from the film, removing repetitive scenes and streamlining the story. What's more, the sentimentality verges on being overwrought here, and the action often distilled down to the most extreme circumstances. In real life, the Mardini sisters and another woman helped push their refugee boat when the motor died. In the film, the sisters bravely jump into raging storm waters alone to lighten to boat load — and nearly drown in the process. Sure, the latter is obviously more exciting and cinematic, but a good storyteller should be able to give the stakes weight without relying on exaggeration.

Perhaps the biggest issue with "The Swimmers" is, then, a lack of cohesion between its often disparate ideas. There's the teen-drama element of the sisters embarking on a journey of self-realization and independence. There's the horrific, suspenseful story of a group of refugees, thrown together through tragic circumstances, fighting to beat the odds and find safety. There's the story of a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who refuses to give up on her Olympic dreams. Each of these stories slots comfortably into established genre conventions — young adult drama, action-survival, sports drama — but they don't blend together naturally, and Hosaini fails to accommodate the resulting tone shifts. 

This is one of the issues with adapting recent history for film. Real life is messy and complicated: Yursa Mardini's story is too big to reduce down to one straight-forward narrative (at least without abandoning major elements). "The Swimmers" is satisfying, despite these flaws, and proves once and for all that filmmaker Sally El Hosaini is creative force to be reckoned with.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10