Long Distance Swimmer dives back into Mardini sisters' migrant dilemma
It’s one of those inspirational true stories of overcoming adversity that’s a producer’s dream.
In 2015, sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini were forced to leave their home in Damascus due to the civil war.
Denied the freedom of movement the West enjoys and with no resettlement pathways available to them, they did what millions of refugees have been forced to do in the last decade: risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy.
"Long Distance Swimmer’s message couldn't be timelier. Since 2016, the EU's response to refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe has been to try to stop the flow altogether, leaving activists and grassroots NGOs to address the humanitarian fallout"
As the engine faltered and the Greek coastguard refused to intervene, it looked like they might drown, until they jumped into the water and for three and a half hours dragged the dinghy to shore, saving their fellow passengers’ lives.
For this act of heroism came well-deserved international acclaim – a feature on Time’s 100 most influential people list, meetings with the Pope and Obama, and a Netflix deal for what became The Swimmers.
The film is a fairly realistic retelling of the perilous route to Western Europe that refugees and migrants are forced to take, and it does a good job of casting light on the atrocities happening at Europe’s borders for those in need of an introduction to the realities of our migration policy.
But the narrative ultimately shies away from pointing the finger at the institutions that have so egregiously failed to protect refugees.
For example, a scene of UN staff handing out water and clothes as boats land on the Greek shore doesn’t ring true – it’s volunteers who perform that function, with the UN’s response in Greece oft described as a resounding failure.
But the most glaring omission is in where the plot ends. Only two sentences in the postscript deal with arguably the most pivotal moment of Sara’s life: her arrest at the hands of the Greek authorities for working in search and rescue, after volunteering in the same sea where she almost died.
Long Distance Swimmer, a documentary produced by Charly Wai Feldman, picks up where The Swimmers left off.
Filmed over the course of four years, it tells the story of Sara’s arrest in 2018 with fellow humanitarian worker Seán Binder, the 106 days they spent in maximum security prison and the international campaign for their acquittal.
Central to their story is their agonising wait: five years later, they still await their day in court to contest the felony charges of espionage and smuggling.
Quite unlike The Swimmers, the documentary is not a feel-good biopic. It’s a raw portrait of what's happening behind the scenes – the mental health crisis plaguing refugees, the persecution of humanitarians, and the sheer amount of effort it takes to rebuild a life after displacement.
The sisters' unbreakable bond as depicted in The Swimmers is cast in sharp relief to that in Long Distance Swimmer as the two sisters drift apart; Sara reeling from the threat of 20 years in prison whilst Yusra continues her training as a competitive swimmer.
As well as setting the story straight on Sara's personal life, Long Distance Swimmer is an indictment of the media that picks up on a story for its narrative potential and then drops its subjects when their identity ceases to be marketable.
Sara points out in the documentary that her appearances on some of the most illustrious international stages result in neither a salary nor an acquittal. Scenes of her speeches as keynote speaker are juxtaposed with back-breaking shifts in her university's cafeteria to fund her studies.
Shots of politicians in Long Distance Swimmer praising her for her bravery – the same politicians who engineer the refugee crisis happening at our borders – certainly seem to support the analysis that Sara has been used as a paradigm of the ‘good migrant’ who can prevail if they just try hard enough.
In light of comments made by Manal Issa, the actress who played Sara in The Swimmers, about the cast and production company's reluctance to engage with Sara's charges, this cynical reading doesn't seem too farfetched.
It is this narrative of heroism that Long Distance Swimmer refutes. This isn’t to say that Sara hasn’t performed an act of humanity and bravery, but rather that we put our stock in individuals who undertake acts of extreme courage that put them at risk, traumatise them, and leave them open to the ire of the increasingly powerful anti-migration lobby in Europe.
Conveniently, putting the onus on brave individuals like Sara also allows the EU to bypass systemic change. But by showing Sara in her most vulnerable moments, Feldman leads us to question the ethics and efficacy of leaving the work of humane migration policy to young activists.
"Quite unlike The Swimmers, the documentary is not a feel-good biopic. It’s a raw portrait of what's happening behind the scenes – the mental health crisis plaguing refugees, the persecution of humanitarians, and the sheer amount of effort it takes to rebuild a life after displacement"
Long Distance Swimmer’s message couldn't be timelier. Since 2016, the EU's response to refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe has been to try to stop the flow altogether, leaving activists and grassroots NGOs to address the humanitarian fallout.
The first indication that this draconian migration policy was taking a turn for the worse was when EU states along the so-called "Balkan route" abruptly shut their borders, preventing refugees from reaching more affluent Western European states.
This was accompanied by a "hotspot" approach that repurposed the Greek islands between Turkey and the Greek mainland into detention centres which asylum seekers could not leave until their asylum application had been processed.
As the relocation scheme that moved 160,000 refugees to Northern European states ceased, refugees found themselves living in open-air prisons, trapped in crowded camps in the EU's border states amongst often openly hostile communities.
By thus restricting refugees' freedom of movement, the EU has created a thriving market for smugglers, who now have a monopoly on any movement further West. But instead of opening up safe passage to disrupt smugglers' business model, the EU has doubled down on its draconian border policy.
As for the Aegean Sea where Sara towed her passengers to safety and then returned to help others, human rights institutions have documented the Greek coastguard towing rubber dinghies back to Turkish waters before destroying the engine, leaving the passengers to drown.
It's in this context that Sara was arrested, as European authorities attempt to keep their violations of refugees' and migrants' rights away from the public eye.
Long Distance Swimmer certainly could have benefitted from analysis of the broader context: Sara’s story is shocking but sadly not unique, with hundreds of Europeans criminalised for helping refugees in the last decade.
Without the backdrop of tightening space for humanitarians in Europe, Feldman’s retelling of Sara’s arrest is at risk of being understood as a freak incident, rather than a systemic policy to ensure impunity at Europe’s borders.
In fact, the last eight years have seen the erosion of institutions mandated to protect refugee rights, whilst the response to migration has been one of securitisation, resulting in the creation of border agency Frontex which has been accused of complicity in pushbacks.
Sara herself seems keenly aware of how the situation for refugees has gone from bad to worse. In one of the final scenes of the documentary, she tells a crowd of conference attendees that "there's no more time for hope" – only time for action.
This seems to be the retort that Long Distance Swimmer serves to The Swimmers. Feel-good stories may raise awareness but are unlikely to inspire action.
It's hard to disagree. As reports emerge of as many as 500 refugees dying in the Mediterranean on 13 June 2023 amidst allegations that the Greek coastguard refused to intervene, The Swimmers' hopeful message doesn't quite meet the moment.
This doesn’t mean The Swimmers hasn’t played its part: there’s certainly room for the perspectives of both films, which are likely to reflect the interests of different audiences.
But as migration policy has hit a new, murderous, low, Long Distance Swimmer is the bitter pill we need to swallow.
Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'