Syria, swimming and symbolism: Egyptian-British director Sally El Hosaini seeks to humanise refugees with Netflix's The Swimmers
The story of Yusra and Sara Mardini is one that many people will already be vaguely familiar with, especially those who follow Syria and refugee issues.
It wasn’t much surprise that Yusra especially caught the eye of international media. After all, not many Syrian refugees can claim to have competed in the Olympics like she did, at both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
The two sisters were raised with the goal of becoming competitive swimmers by their father in Damascus, himself also a swimmer when he was younger.
Yusra dreamed of one day representing Syria in international swimming competitions, but the war prevented this from ever happening and cancelled any hope of them living normal lives.
"A story like this, merging sports, refugees and inspirational young women, was bound to make a major Hollywood-like producer lick their lips and think: there’s a major film to be made here"
Soon, it would be too dangerous for them to stay in Syria, and so they did the perilous journey across the Mediterranean like millions of others – even swimming alongside their dinghy for some of the way from Turkey to Greece to prevent the small overcrowded boat from sinking.
They eventually made it to Berlin, their desired destination, and Yusra even fulfilled her dream of competing in the 2016 Olympics – not for Syria, but for the Refugee Olympic Team, which was inaugurated by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) that year.
A story like this, merging sports, refugees and inspirational young women, was bound to make a major Hollywood-like producer lick their lips and think: there’s a major film to be made here.
Even before Yusra headed to Rio in 2016, she was being contacted by producers hoping to adapt her and her sister’s lives to the big screen.
Yusra’s sole focus was on swimming then, but after she published her book Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian — My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph in 2018 and developed a working relationship with the independent producer Ali Jafaar, things started to speed up.
Ali brought the story to Working Title Films, the UK production company that made hugely successful rom-coms like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and Four Weddings and a Funeral, but also more forgettable recent flops like Cats and Yesterday.
Eventually, Working Title obtained the rights and assigned award-winning screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne to write the script.
Netflix would later join the film as co-producers, releasing it on its streaming platform on November 23, after a release in selected theatres on November 11.
As the English screenwriter recognised that he didn’t know much about Syria nor what it feels like to become a refugee, Jack instead decided to focus the film’s narrative on the sibling bond – how neither Yusra nor her older sister Sara could have survived or reached success and recognition without the other.
This angle was one of the main reasons Egyptian-British director Sally El Hosaini was drawn to the project.
Sally, whose 2012 debut feature My Brother the Devil won major accolades, including Best European Film at Berlinale, had already turned down Working Title on previous film proposals and was initially reluctant about taking this on, perceiving it as a clichéd tale of an underdog sports film with Rocky energy.
But when she read Jack’s script, which involved in-depth research and conversations with both sisters, she decided this was a project she couldn’t turn down.
"I also wanted to show the colours of the Middle East... I'm sick of seeing that palette: that everything in the Middle East is beige"
"What grabbed me was that there were two heroes, the obvious one Yusra, but also the unsung hero, Sara, and their sister relationship was so fascinating,” Sally tells The New Arab.
Beyond the pull of these two female protagonists, Sally also felt compelled to take on this story as an “opportunity to show a side of the Middle East in a way that I'm passionate about, in an honest way.”
This notably included shooting the film in a more authentic way stylistically speaking, in contrast to how many mainstream Hollywood films tend to shoot films in the MENA region. “I also wanted to show the colours of the Middle East,” Sally added. “I'm sick of seeing that palette: that everything in the Middle East is beige.”
To keep the film’s authentic feel and embody the Mardini sisters’ unique bond required the director to cast a similarly unique female pairing as the film’s protagonists.
The two actresses who were cast, Nathalie Issa as Yusra and Manal Issa as Sara, are also sisters, and their different yet complementary personalities were a major pull factor in casting them as the lead roles.
“Manal really reminds me of Sara on a soul level. Nathalie reminds me of Yusra, they had several similar and contrasting attributes,” Sally said. “In the film, Sara says to Yusra: ‘You’re soft on the outside but hard underneath.’ Inversely, Sara is hard on the outside but soft underneath... to me it was about finding sisters that have that.”
But for the two Lebanese-French sisters, working on The Swimmers was initially a big no-go, because before the film neither of them even knew how to swim.
Not only that – they both had water phobia, so this didn’t seem like the project for them. But Sally was a fan of Manal’s work, who impressed her in recent critically-praised independent Lebanese films like The Sea Ahead and Memory Box.
“I had thought of Manal when I first read the script because she's quite a rebel and she reminds me of Sara. They’re both got quite feisty and spirited,” Sally said.
The director managed to convince Manal to audition despite her water phobia, and during the audition, she mentioned her younger sister studying in France, Nathalie, who had yet to act in a feature film.
A few screen tests later and the Issa sisters agreed to face their fears and commit to the roles. They learned to swim in several weeks, practising intensely every day with professional trainers – even getting lessons from Sven Spannerkrebs, the real-life German swimming coach who trained Yusra for the Olympics and had the idea of signing her up for the Refugee Olympic Team.
The film’s narrative arc ultimately leads to the Rio Olympics, making it a feel-good inspirational sports film in which an underdog character wins big and learns a lesson.
The lesson that Sally El Hosaini was trying to depict was that for Yusra swimming for the Refugee team was more symbolic than swimming for her home country Syria, as it meant she was swimming “to represent a group of people who lost their lives in the sea.”
By way of this, the filmmaker wanted to use the water motif as a metaphor for renewal – as the swimmers forge new identities in every water they wade in.
"Swimming for the Refugee team was more symbolic than swimming for her home country Syria, as it meant she was swimming 'to represent a group of people who lost their lives in the sea'
“Ultimately, cinema is entertainment,” Sally said. “For example, I hope that an audience that maybe wouldn't go and watch something about refugees but would watch a sports movie would watch this movie; that they would be drawn in and it would make them maybe think for a second that the refugees they've been looking at are no different to them… My hope is to humanise refugees."
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues, and the arts & culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie