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‘The Swimmers’ Toronto Review: Remarkable True Story Of Syrian Sisters On A Harrowing Journey To Compete At The Rio Olympics

Netflix has a number of high-profile movies coming to the Toronto  Film Festival, just as it did at Venice and Telluride, but a less heralded title with no instantly recognizable star names was chosen to open the fest tonight, and The Swimmers may turn out to be a surprise winner for the streamer when it debuts this fall. It certainly reverses the curse of some of TIFF’s less successful opening-nighters.

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Ostensibly about a triumphant appearance at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, The Swimmers is really a moving and suspenseful story of the plight of refugees looking for a better life against all odds. The power of this movie is it turns out to be an unlikely underdog sports saga about a couple of Syrian sisters who show remarkable swimming skill in school and who are so impressive they could be Olympic caliber. But before you wonder if this will turn into a waterlogged Rocky, it is mostly a story about two young people who  have no real chance of escaping a war-torn Damascus where frightening daily bombing by the Russians are destroying hope everywhere, and this turns out to be a stunning tale of refugees struggling to find their way to freedom, an epic immigration saga that is all the more powerful because it is 100% true.

Toronto Film Festival Photo Gallery

Sara (Manal Issa) and Yusra (Nathalie Issa) Mardini try to live as normal a life as kids can in a war-torn country, their family including mother Mervat (Kinda Aloush) and father Ezzat (Ali Suliman) is loving and their father, a former swimmer, acts as their coach. They have natural talent but as the years pass Sara loses interest because of what is happening in their country, while Yusra still has Olympic dreams. After a bomb nearly kills them while in a pool, their father reluctantly agrees to let them emigrate to Germany before Yusra turns 18 — an important point since it would allow them to eventually reunite with their family in safer environs. Off they go, but Ezzat had one condition: that their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) accompany them on the harrowing journey. It starts with them able to get flights to Istanbul via Beirut on tourist visas, along with some clever wheeling and dealing on the part of the colorful Nizar, and eventually they meet other refugees from various countries and bond with them before embarking on one of the most perilous parts of their adventure, an ocean crossing in an ill-equipped raft with 20 others. That raft sinks, an event where their swimming skills really come in handy, but it is touch and go for all including their newfound friends.

This all leads to one of the film’s most visually striking scenes: the sight of a mountain of hundreds of life vests covering the shoreline of Lesbos once they hit land, vests that represent the lucky ones who made the same crossing and lived to tell about it. It is a picture worth a thousand words in what it poignantly says about the plight of refugees.

More narrow escapes and difficult travel finally leads them to Berlin, where they must stay in a refugee shelter with six other women in order to hopefully be granted asylum. They are ordered not to leave, but Yusra, itching to get back in the pool, finds a local swim club where she meets Sven (German superstar Matthias Schweighofer), the coach, who at first rebuffs their desire to help them join his swimming team. But she prevails when he relents and sees the talents she has. Complications arise between the sisters as Yursa once again hits the spotlight, but her 18th birthday comes and goes, meaning the family cannot be reunited unless those left back in Syria take the same deadly journey. With the Olympics looming, Sven learns of a plan to have a refugee team be allowed to compete. Yusra balks, wanting to instead compete for her own country, but eventually takes the chance.

Sara and Yursa Mardini
ABC News

Director Sally El Hosaini collaborated with Jack Thorne on the adaptation of Yursa’s 2018 autobiography, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian — My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph, and has turned the film into a stirring story of female perseverance and emancipation, particularly spotlighting Arab women who rarely get this kind of opportunity in a major motion picture. The director avoids all the clichés of the usual films in the overrun genre of inspiring sports movies without rewriting the rules but somehow keeping it fresh. Swimming has never been top of the list for Hollywood probably since the days when Olympic champ Esther Williams became a star at the MGM of the 1940s and ’50s. But again this is not a story about swimmers, despite its title. This is a thrilling adventure of two women, and actually a number of others, who defied their own circumstance and came out on top. The film does not tiptoe around the conflicts between them, the sibling rivalry, the ups and downs, but it remains first and foremost a love story of sorts within the family, an older and a younger sister not unlike Serena and Venus in tennis when you think about it; this is ironically coming just a year after their story hit screens in King Richard. El Hosaini keeps the focus also on the raw ambition that makes a champion, the inner drive to succeed, and it is a quirk of fate that it took a war to drive them away and to a place where their could actually realistically pursue their dreams, both sisters taking a different path but nevertheless coming together as they always have.

Casting director Shaheen Baig deserves a shout-out for finding such appealing actors to put in front of El Hosaini to work in this film. Particularly the Issa sisters who were chosen to play Yusra and Sara. They are excellent, and completely convincing in and out of the water. The rest of the cast is well chosen, especially Nahel Tzigai who plays Shada, a refugee who joins them on their journey and also has a newborn baby in tow. Schweighofer shows why he is a star, completely engaging as Sven.

El Hosaini is definitely going places. As a director she shows complete command behind the camera, and her own Arab background no doubt helped inspire her to make this as authentic as it feels; The Swimmers is a film, and a story, you won’t soon forget.

Producers are Working Title’s veterans Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner along with Tim Cole and Ali Jaafar. Director Stephen Daldry is among the executive producers. Technical credits are first-rate, notably the work of cinematographer Christopher Ross and Editor Ian Kitching. Steven Price’s score soars.

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