DUBAI: Conjure an image of war — an image of what a young woman stuck in those circumstances must be going through to take the desperate decision to flee into the dark of night, to become a refugee. Is your image full of ash and smoke, of abject terror and starvation? That is exactly the image that Sally El-Hosaini’s film “The Swimmers” — based on the remarkable true story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara — attempts to dispel from the start.
The film, which is now streaming globally on Netflix, begins in a very different civil-war-era Syria than the one commonly depicted in the news: Two young women are dancing to Sia’s “Titanium” with their friends, clubbing and finding joy where they can. Bombs are falling in the distance, but they have found a way to push that out of their minds for a moment, to continue their normal, middle-class lives because they refuse to give into the fear.
“When Yusra was watching this scene, she turned around to me in the cinema, and said, ‘Thank you for this. This is what it really felt like,’” El-Hosaini tells Arab News.
“Yusra told me the story of the day a mortar landed in front of her as she was going to meet her friends, and there was chaos, so she hid behind a wall. And as she hid, she thought, ‘Should I run home, or should I still go meet my friends?’”
As Yusra Mardini hid behind that wall, she told El-Hosaini, she did the math in her head. Surely, if she was going to die tonight, it would have been here.
“Statistically, I’ve already had the mortar land in front of me. Another one’s not going to hit me tonight. I’m going to meet my friends,” Mardini thought.
“That’s the way it becomes normalized. It’s horrific, but that’s what really happens. They were just trying to be teenagers,” El-Hosaini continues.
In many ways, El-Hosaini’s film can’t help but be remarkable. The fact that the sisters cheated death time and again for one to reach the pinnacle of their sport on the other side of the world is undeniably inspiring. What makes it especially notable, however, is not just the true story at its center, but the way that the British-Egyptian filmmaker El-Hosaini frames it as a film of “female emancipation” — a story not of passive victims, but of active heroes who used a desperate situation to rise up in ways that, ironically, they never could have had their circumstances not been changed so dramatically.
“War turns everything on its head,” says El-Hosaini. “All of the structures of society — cultural, patriarchal structures — no longer exist. They're shaken. That allows the young the freedom to really go on a journey like this. It’s an ironic liberation that came out of tragedy and war. On that journey that they took, they really were making crucial decisions about their lives. They became heroes by doing that. That’s something I really responded to.”
This is not just a story that El-Hosaini dreamed of making, it’s a story she had grown up wishing already existed.
“You don't often see young, modern Arab women on screen. I saw this opportunity to make complex heroes out of these types of women. Normally, you have, like, victimized portrayal. When I was growing up, I never had a role model like that — a version of me on screen. I had the thought that if I didn't do this project, and I saw the film, I might feel disappointed, because I knew what it could be in my hands. And if it didn't achieve that, I would be very sad. And that was when I realized I had to do it myself,” says El-Hosaini.
At the center of the all-star Arab cast, which includes Syrian superstar Kinda Alloush as the Mardini sisters’ mother, acclaimed Palestinian actor Ali Soleiman as their father, and rising Egyptian star Ahmed Malek as their closest friend, are two relative unknowns — Lebanese sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa as Yusra and Sara Mardini.
The Issa sisters were only cast after an exhaustive search, one that initially only included Syrians before the visas required by the film’s locations made Syrian casting impossible.
“Manal had been in some independent Lebanese films and she had this very charismatic, rebellious presence. When she auditioned, she mentioned she was a big sister just like Sara, but her younger sister, Nathalie, was not an actress — she was studying for a master’s in literature. We asked if she could audition, and after Nathalie read the book, she was inspired, and came to screen test for us. Their chemistry blew me away, as they each embodied the very different energies of Sara and Yusra. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’ve found the Lebanese version of the Syrian Mardini sisters,’” says El-Hosaini.
When the two pairs of sisters met, the connection was instant.
“Within a few hours, they were sharing their life stories. When they spent the night at their house that first meeting, they talked all night, and they were like the best of friends. And they’re still friends now. It just felt so natural,” the filmmaker continues.
But the film did more than provide the two pairs of sisters with new friends. It also brought the Mardini sisters back together, as they had drifted apart somewhat since the events of the film.
“When we first screened the film for them in Berlin, we all sat in the back room, terrified, because they hadn’t seen anything. And then, as the movie started, they started laughing, and then crying, and talking through it — whispering to each other. When the movie ended, Sara climbed over the cinema seats, and she gave me a big hug. She said, ‘Thank you. You reminded me how much I love my sister’” says El-Hosaini.
“Most people don’t ever see their life contained in two hours in that way. It was a very intense experience,” she continues. “But I’m so thrilled that they’re proud of it, and that they felt represented. It was really one of the great honors of my life to tell their story.”