Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
Manal Issa (left) as Sara Mardini and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini in Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers.’ (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 08 December 2022

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
  • The filmmaker on her acclaimed movie about two Syrian sisters, one of whom became an Olympian after fleeing their homeland 

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?’” 

Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Yusra Mardini and Sarah Mardini at the premiere of ‘The Swimmers’ in Toronto. (AFP)

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.

Filmmaker Sally El-Hosaini (with megaphone) during the making of ‘The Swimmers.’ (Supplied)

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.” 

 Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa and Ahmed Malek. (Supplied)

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.” 

Model Gigi Hadid shares insights into her mom life

Model Gigi Hadid shares insights into her mom life
Updated 03 February 2023

Model Gigi Hadid shares insights into her mom life

Model Gigi Hadid shares insights into her mom life

DUBAI: Palestinian-Dutch model Gigi Hadid this week shared rare insights into her life as mother to two-year-old daughter Khai, whom she co-parents with former boyfriend Zayn Malik.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal Magazine, the 27-year-old single mom said that she has “a very mom morning routine.”


A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid)

“Whatever time she’s (Khai) waking up, I’m waking up,” said Hadid, which is usually between 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Hadid added that for breakfast, she eats whatever her daughter is having. “I make her pancakes and sausages every day,” she said. 


A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid)

“For Christmas, she asked me what I was going to ask Santa for and so I said I wanted a new pancake pan. I ordered myself, via Santa, this cool pancake pan — each little circle pancake is a different animal, so she can have lion pancakes or llama pancakes. It’s really fun,” Hadid added.  

Unlike what you might think, Hadid does not have a strict workout routine. Running after her daughter is her exercise, she said. “We walk a lot. We do yoga together. With lifting her and running around all day and going to the park, I get moving,” she said. 


A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid)

The model also said that she has found an easy way to keep her busy schedule in control. She said she is skilled at organization, scheduling and making sure her many projects get the time they need. 

“That also helps me give a lot of time to Khai,” she said. “(My schedule) is so janky. It can be like Khai’s craft paper. This month it’s (on) a yellow piece of paper. And it’s literally a square calendar with six lines to make seven days. I take a picture on my phone, and I edit through the month then I’ll do all the edits and rewrite it the next month.”


A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid)

In September, Hadid celebrated her daughter’s second birthday at an intimate party, sharing a picture of a multi-layered cake decorated with characters from Peppa Pig, which seems to be Khai’s favorite cartoon show. 

Khai’s name is a nod to Hadid’s Palestinian grandmother Khairiah.

Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Cox talks witty memoir, role in HBO’s ‘Succession’ at Emirates Lit Fest

Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Cox talks witty memoir, role in HBO’s ‘Succession’ at Emirates Lit Fest
Updated 03 February 2023

Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Cox talks witty memoir, role in HBO’s ‘Succession’ at Emirates Lit Fest

Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Cox talks witty memoir, role in HBO’s ‘Succession’ at Emirates Lit Fest
  • 60-year veteran honors parents’ struggle with autobiography
  • Considers himself ‘overrated’ like ‘overblown’ Johnny Depp

DUBAI: Golden Globe-winning actor Brian Cox certainly knows how to make some noise. The award-winning veteran, known for his portrayal as the angry Logan Roy in HBO’s “Succession,” has an extensive resume spanning six decades across theater, television and films.

Arab News met Cox at the Emirates Literature Festival to discuss his recently released autobiography. The memoir, “Putting the Rabbit in the Hat,” a candid yet highly emotional and hilarious book, journeys through his poverty-stricken childhood to his theater days and a formidable career in Hollywood where he acted in blockbusters including “Troy,” “The Bourne Identity” and “Braveheart.”

Born in 1946 in Dundee, Scotland, Cox lost his father to pancreatic cancer when he was only 8 and dealt with his mother’s struggles with mental health for years, ultimately being raised by his elder sisters. “Writing the memoir was a cathartic experience — I wanted to honor my parents. It was really about my mum and dad and what they went through during a particularly difficult time in the country,” Cox tells Arab News.

Cox was born in 1946 in Dundee, Scotland. (HBO/David Russell)

As a child, he found solace in film and television — often escaping to the cinema. “There were 21 cinemas in Dundee, and I was a regular at every single one,” he writes. Then, one afternoon, while watching Albert Finney in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” he experienced a life-altering moment — if a working-class Englishman can make it in movies, so could he. “I just thought that was very liberating — I felt that Albert was a good muse for me,” says Cox.

As the book tells the tale of his rise to stardom, his shortcomings — professionally and personally — not to be missed are the witty jabs at industry A-listers, including Edward Norton, Steven Seagal and Johnny Depp. Although he turned down a role in “Pirates of the Caribbean” (with no regrets), he does comment on Depp’s acting.

“Personable though I’m sure he is, he is so overblown, so overrated. I mean, ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ Let’s face it, if you come on with hands like that and pale, scarred-face makeup, you don’t have to do anything. And he didn’t. And subsequently, he’s done even less.”

His book tells the tale of his rise to stardom. (HBO/Graeme Hunter)

Was he not worried that his no-holds-barred comments may burn bridges? He clears the air. “I happened to say that Johnny Depp was overrated, but I don't think that — I think we’re all overrated. With Johnny Depp, I think he’s a creature rather than an actor. Edward Scissorhands is an extraordinary creation, and there’s a place for it, but at the same time, I think he’s clearly talented and successful in his time. So I wasn’t dismissing him. I just felt that, like us all, he’s overrated. I’m part of that overrated,” explains Cox. His thoughts on Steven Seagal: ‘He’s as ludicrous in real life as he is on screen,” he writes.

His Logan Roy character sees him as the patriarch of the Roy family and a mean media magnate. Critics have often compared Roy’s character to Rupert Murdoch’s, but Cox believes that isn’t the case. “One of the things that I keep emphasizing about Logan is that he’s not like any of the people he’s compared to — he’s self-made and didn’t inherit anything.

“So his stakes are that much higher because he created it — he wants to know how his creation will be carried on. And he’s a misanthrope,” he says. Another complex part of his character includes his love/hate relationship with his children. “His Achilles heel — the thing that causes the most grief — is that he loves his children. If he didn’t love them, he’d be far better off — but he does,” elaborates Cox.

In 2020, Cox won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama for “Succession” — an award he respects but doesn’t necessarily take too seriously. “It’s the work — that’s the main thing. I’m not interested in awards — I’d rather have a job than an award.”

Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz discusses his new hit show

Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz discusses his new hit show
Updated 03 February 2023

Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz discusses his new hit show

Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz discusses his new hit show
  • Khabbaz spent decades building an international reputation, winning best actor at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2007 for his acclaimed film ‘Under the Bombs’
  • ‘You have to deal with a lot of baloney,’ says the acclaimed Lebanese actor, writer and director

DUBAI: If you want to understand what it means to be Lebanese, there may be no better prism to look through than the work of Georges Khabbaz. In the three decades Khabbaz has been active, he has been a pillar of Lebanon’s arts scene, the true king of the Lebanese stage. He has written, directed and starred in dozens of plays and television shows, chronicling nearly every aspect of life in the Levantine nation, all with an honesty and fearlessness that have led some to call him the country’s true face.  

Khabbaz has also spent decades building a reputation across the region and the world, winning best actor at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2007 for his acclaimed film “Under the Bombs” and working as a writer on Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated 2018 film “Capernaum.” Now 46 and coming off the immense global success of last year’s Netflix film “Perfect Strangers,” in which he played Walid, Khabbaz is now writer and star of the hit MBC series “Brando El Sharq,” a show that is more than another feather in his cap — it’s the culmination of his career thus far.  

Khabbaz on set with his “Brando El Sharq” co star Amal Arafah. (Supplied)

“Quite simply, this series is an encapsulation of 30 years of my life,” Khabbaz tells Arab News. “I’ve taken a journey of decades, and put all that I’ve been through — the striving, the yearning, the success and the heartbreak — into 10 episodes, and kept the truth of it intact.” 

The series follows a filmmaker — a character representing Khabbaz at his lowest — who is desperate to get funding for his debut film and fulfill his dreams of becoming a renowned director. He’s a man in love with film history, dreaming of Charlie Chaplin and “Casablanca,” and while art is his escape from reality, it is but a fleeting one. His father’s health is deteriorating, and, desperate for money, he begins a pursuit of the biggest star in the country, the titular Brando of the East, to finally bring his plans to fruition. 

What makes this story distinctly Lebanese, in Khabbaz’s mind, is multifold. The country, a veritable mosaic of cultures and influences, is full of art-obsessed creatives, but lacks avenues for those creatives to thrive.  

Nadine Labaki and Georges Khabbaz on the set of “Perfect Strangers.” (Supplied)

“There are so many educational and cultural hardships, but we fight for our dreams and ambitions harder. We rely on our work, and we rely on each other, because we don’t have an environment that supports us,” says Khabbaz. “A lot of the system we live in works against us. It exists to snap our wings off so that we can’t achieve our dreams. There’s a lot of bullying that stops us from fighting for our passion, especially at the beginning of a career. Frankly, you have to deal with a lot of baloney.”  

Khabbaz, of course, feels he’s earned the right to make these sorts of grand proclamations about the state of his country.  

“From the beginning, I had to work hard to discover what audiences in Lebanon are truly feeling,” says Khabbaz. 

The magic of theater lies in its immediacy. People have to show up each night to buy tickets, and once they’re sitting there, performers can keenly feel their engagement from the stage. As Khabbaz wrote and performed plays, he worked to fine tune what it was that his audience really cared about, and to find common ground in their concerns, rather than just pander to them. 

“There is a big audience in front of you that needs to be satisfied, but it doesn’t work if you don’t stay honest with yourself and true to your work. They will never be satisfied, nor will you, if it doesn’t come from a place deep inside you,” says Khabbaz. “I couldn’t lose hold of myself and my own feelings to satisfy them. And that has not always been easy. In fact, over 30 years, that has been a constant struggle, one I’m always concerned about.” 

A still from “Brando El Sharq.” (Supplied)

Ultimately, that is what “Brando El Sharq” is really about, in Khabbaz’s eyes. While its style pulls from his artistic heroes — Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers — its true exploration is of a man in desperate pursuit of his dreams who’s in danger of losing his artistic heart in the process. 

“The idea evolved from the thought that, while looking for yourself, you shouldn’t lose yourself,” says Khabbaz. 

In telling this story, Khabbaz was careful not to limit the show to any one genre. Like life, it jumps genres depending on the day, flush with joy, sorrow and everything in between. 

“This series is tragedy, comedy, parody, satire, musical, romance and suspense. It’s theater and it’s cinema in one. This series is my scientific lab,” he says. 

There’s more than one reason for that panoply of storytelling style. Khabbaz is an actor first and foremost and, for actors, great parts are defined by their dimensions.  

“Any actor would love to play this role because it’s so diverse and inclusive of everything you learn about acting. A skilled actor loves to move from one emotion to another very quickly,” says Khabbaz.  

As “Brando El Sharq” concludes its first season, Khabbaz is hard at work on his next film, “Yunan,” the latest from Syrian filmmaker Ameer Fakher Eldin, the man behind 2021’s acclaimed film “The Stranger,” staring Ashraf Barhom. In “Yunan,” Khabbaz plays a depressed writer living in exile who learns to love life again after meeting an elderly woman on a remote island.  

For Khabbaz, the film is a testament to how far he’s come. Why? Because the elderly woman is played by the iconic German actress Hanna Schygulla, star of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979) and the defining star of the New German Cinema movement, now approaching her 80th birthday.  

“I still have so many dreams and goals in the world of cinema and theater, but this is one of them. The opportunity to collaborate with a genius is deeply humbling,’ says Khabbaz.   

Khabbaz is aware of the esteem he’s built in Lebanon and across the region, and as the positive reviews for his latest series roll in, he’s finally able to look back on his own journey with pride, and reflect on what all the praise represents.  

“I’m just like all the people in the audience. I’ve always chosen the subject of my work based on what I know people can connect to, what we have in common. I’m just like all these people that look up to me, and perhaps they look up to me because I’ve shown them that I’m like them for years through my work,” says Khabbaz. “I think they see me, someone who looks just like them, as an example of what they can accomplish.” 

Tripoli’s futuristic fair placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger 

Tripoli’s futuristic fair placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger 
Updated 03 February 2023

Tripoli’s futuristic fair placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger 

Tripoli’s futuristic fair placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger 

DUBAI: Designed in 1962 by the renowned late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Rachid Karami International Fair in Tripoli, Lebanon is now on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, which was updated Jan. 25.  

The site — a symbol of mid-20th century modernization in the Lebanese architectural landscape and of the historical cross-cultural relations between Brazil and Lebanon — has been neglected and abandoned for decades.  

Lebanese architecture expert Dr. Wassim Naghi is hopeful that this will be a positive step for this significant site.  

Oscar Niemeyer in 1977. (AFP)

“Frankly speaking, with the ongoing situation in Lebanon (being) a long series of bad news and negative vibes since October 2019, I can tell you this is the best news I’ve heard in the recent tragic history of Lebanon,” he told Arab News.  

He explained that, through this listing, the site, which has lacked financial backing and proper maintenance for 60 years, has a good chance of attracting the donors and funds necessary to revive it.  

The huge fair, named after the former Lebanese prime minister Rachid Karami, was built from reinforced concrete and stands in a 70-hectare site. Its central building is a covered hall shaped like a boomerang. Its purpose was to host international exhibitions.  

Niemeyer, who famously gave Brasilia its bold buildings, showed Karami and the press a model of the site. “It was a total shock in the media,” said Naghi. “It was something very futuristic. They didn’t expect to see these volumes and an outstanding acrobatic structural system. . . It was the talk of the town — and the world, by the way.”   

The site faced several delays and was never actually used, mostly down to the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, during which the fair was occupied by Palestinian militias and the Syrian Army.   

The fair has, somehow, miraculously survived, but it remains in “critical condition,” stresses Naghi. Because it is also located near the seaside, humidity and salt have contributed to its degradation. There have also been some partial collapses in recent times.  

“We might witness a total collapse, and that would be a huge loss,” Naghi said. “Not just a loss for Tripoli and Lebanon, but for humanity.”   

‘Lord of the Rings’ star Andy Serkis confirmed to attend MEFCC in Abu Dhabi

‘Lord of the Rings’ star Andy Serkis confirmed to attend MEFCC in Abu Dhabi
Updated 02 February 2023

‘Lord of the Rings’ star Andy Serkis confirmed to attend MEFCC in Abu Dhabi

‘Lord of the Rings’ star Andy Serkis confirmed to attend MEFCC in Abu Dhabi

DUBAI: British actor, writer, filmmaker and producer Andy Serkis – most known for his motion-capture performances in blockbuster films – has been confirmed as one of the celebrity guests at the Middle East Film and Comic Con in Abu Dhabi, running from March 3 – 5.  

The actor, who will be in attendance on March 4 and 5, has brought to life several iconic computer-generated characters, including Gollum in “Lord of the Rngs” franchise, Caesar the ape in the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin” and Supreme Leader Snoke in the “Star Wars” films.  

The actor also most recently portrayed Kino Loy in the Star Wars DIsney+ series “Andor,” streaming in the Middle East on OSN.


A post shared by Andrew Serkis (@andyserkis)

In an upcoming role, Serkis will play millionaire villain David Robey in “Luther: The Fallen Sun,” the movie sequel to the popular Idris Elba-led TV series, “Luther.”  

Speaking with Total Film, Serkis said of the role, “I don’t think I’ve come across anything quite as dark for a long time.”  

The script forced him to ask, “do I really actually at this point in the world and time and my life, want to go down this particular rabbit hole of something that’s so hard to fathom in humanity?” 

Meanwhile, at MEFCC, fans can also expect to meet “House of the Dragon” and “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith as well as “Star Wars” veteran Anthony Daniels, who played android C3PO in all 10 films.